Carolita Johnson | Longreads | January 2019 | 23 minutes (5,775 words)
When I freelanced as a “fit model” in the early aughts (the unglamorous kind of modeling that helps patternmakers adjust their patterns to fit humans correctly) I signed a contract with my agency that legally bound me to “maintain” my “appearance” while they represented me. My skin, all my visible hair (on my head, my eyebrows, my legs, armpits, and face), as well as my weight and several key body measurements all fell under this rubric.
There is nothing unreasonable about this: the main part of the job, besides the obvious — trying clothing on for patternmakers to see if there’s anything in an item that needs correcting, to avoid producing thousands of flawed garments — is to make sure your body is always the same so that a designer can produce clothing that is a consistent fit. The unspoken truth is that even though it’s technically only about measurements, it wouldn’t do to show up without a minimum of good hair and makeup, looking as attractive as you possibly can with whatever looks you pulled in the Lotto of good looks. This goes for all size categories, from junior to plus size.
Accordingly, my accountant and I came up with a deductible category we called “maintenance” — well, I came up with it and she translated it into the IRS-accepted language — and under this category I placed gym membership expenses, haircuts (and eventual hair color as I aged, because my gray hairs upset some designers even if their clothes still fit me perfectly), mani-pedis, and occasional waxing for lingerie and swimwear jobs. I might even have been able to get Botox deducted if I’d kept doing the job long enough. I left it to my accountant to decide what I could legally include.
For context, just because most people are curious about the job description, the ideal fit model has a body that isn’t extraordinary in any way. I was a size 6/junior medium, a size for which there’s a relatively small market, so I didn’t work 9 to 5 like a size 10 or a size 18W would have. This was what made the job perfect for a cartoonist/writer like me.
It was extremely enjoyable to be able to deduct these expenses for that relatively brief period of my life as a woman. It never escaped my ironic notice that with few exceptions, most women feel contractually bound to maintain their appearance in all the same ways I had to as a pro, while paying for it all on a sliding scale from “religiously” to “happily” to “begrudgingly,” usually depending on the amount of social and financial power they are born into or acquire through hard work or marriage.
The first memories I have of a deliberate effort to modify my body to conform to ideals of femininity are of taking ballet and piano lessons. No one would normally think of this when considering the cultural oppression of women — no, we think, “Doesn’t every girl want to be a princess/ballerina?” I wanted to be an astronaut or a genie, if you care to know.
I consider myself lucky that my mother, not “woke” by any measure, mind you, made it very clear that her intention in having me trained in these mind and body-altering skills was not to broaden my brain capacity or to fulfill my personal dreams, but, rather, to shape me into a cultivated young lady with good posture and a graceful carriage that would someday make me attractive to a man with money and power. She just wanted to make sure I knew what was at stake. Clueing me in made it easier for me to articulate what I would imminently be rebelling against.
A recent immigrant, her intent to mold me into trophy wife material was her version of the idea of upward mobility. If she could have afforded to send me to finishing school, she would have. In this I wasn’t unusual: many young women of my generation had mothers with similar dreams for them. Even now, girls are being brought up this way to that end, and neither they nor their mothers find anything objectionable in it.
My mother, herself, practiced ballet into her 20s in Ecuador. She liked to show me the perfectly formed (or deformed) arch of her ballet-trained foot, and tell me stories of how people used to say her feet never really touched the ground when she ran down stairways in her full-skirted dresses that her aunt made for her, copies of dresses from 1950’s fashion magazines. She spent her young womanhood dancing, flirting, playing pranks, earning a good living as a legal secretary in a Swiss bank, and turning heads with her beauty and glittering peals of laughter. She embodied the “manic pixie dream girl” of her time.
Her life as an elegant young middle class woman in Ecuador was interrupted in her 20s by the obligation to join the rest of her family in America, where all her grace and charms were made irrelevant by her status as a non-English speaking, non-white immigrant. Her brother told her to get married, so she did. She married my father, who I gather she thought was upper class because he liked classical music (in her youth in Ecuador only the upper classes listened to classical music, I gathered). My dad was just a recording engineer from New Jersey, not rich, not upper class. She might have had a clue if she’d bothered to learn English before searching for an American mate.
In any event, when she realized she had missed her chance to marry a well-to-do doctor or lawyer, she was determined that I would not. It wasn’t an impossible dream: I wasn’t perfect, but I was American, and half-white (my father was of Swedish and German descent), had the right bodily proportions for my time: good shoulders, long limbs, taller than average but not too tall, naturally thin. Mixed-race women were becoming more and more “mainstream” as I grew into a woman. I didn’t love the ballet or the piano lessons, but I resigned myself to them as the only way to have free food and shelter from parents who valued such things over my individuality.
I would walk to my piano lessons thinking I could just rebel or run away, but then what? I was a kid, and I needed food and a safe place to live. The infamous serial killer known as “the Son of Sam” was wandering our streets at the time, preying on young women with brown hair (like me!). So, I stayed for my own self-preservation, and told myself I was therefore consenting to go to these lessons, and that in my heart I was free. Little did I know this mentality would be the response to so many other questions of consent and acquiescence in my future womanhood.
This isn’t me showing off how precocious I was as a 9-year old. It’s me pointing out that it wasn’t really that hard to see, even for a kid like me, that one of the first things I had to learn as a girl was how to conform to expectations imposed on me in order to live in safety, and most of these expectations centered around my feminine appeal.
At around the age of 9, to my relief, I had to quit ballet because although I had managed to fake it for a few years with my big floppy feet in soft ballet shoes, my big toes were too long for the transition to “pointe,” making it incredibly painful, and damaging my metatarsophalangeal* joints, the joints in my feet that would quite early on in my life develop bunions with the further help of bad “flats” and cheap high heels.
Thanks to the ballet lessons, I did achieve and retain for life an excellent posture, which has been beneficial in many ways, including making me look good in fashionable clothing, which came in handy later. They also cultivated in me a body awareness that helped counteract my natural, distracted clumsiness. For that I’m grateful. For the bunions and chronic sesamoid pain, not so much.
Around the time I quit ballet, perhaps in the vacuum created by the cessation of my lessons, I began to examine my physical appearance. Because it was a big moment, I remember sitting on the cold white and black checked tiles of my parents’ bathroom, staring at myself in the mirror after noticing for the first time that I had leg hair. I tried shaving it off with my father’s Wilkinson Sword razor, certain he’d never know. We never think our leg hairs are as coarse as our fathers’ beards, but somehow their razors always tell the tale. I still don’t understand it.
The procedure went fine, no deep cuts, just a little razor burn due to not using water or shaving cream. I would eventually get the hang of it.
I looked at my face next. Now that I’d clocked superfluous hair in one place on my body, I began to see hair to be removed or tamed into submission everywhere. It was my mother’s stainless steel Revlon tweezers that I enlisted next in the service of grooming my body: I proceeded to unwittingly over-pluck both eyebrows in the classic scenario of “woops, better pluck more off the other one now… woops, better pluck more off this one now…” Better luck next time. My hair, meaning the hair on my head, looked fine by me: I had bangs and long hair. I couldn’t find anything to reproach there. I therefore gave myself a pass on worrying about my hairstyle for the rest of my life. (At least such was my intent at the time).
It would, from time to time, occur to me to shave my leg hair again with my dad’s razor. He finally gave up trying to make me admit I was using it and simply bought me my own. (I still liked his razor better and continued to use it. He learned to keep two razors, one for him, and the Wilkinson for my “secret” usage.)
I wasn’t sure why I was doing it. I just knew I should, probably because I had watched my mother shaving her legs with an electric shaver called the Lady Sunbeam when I was younger. It was a magical looking, bejeweled device with a built-in light, and its loud buzzing made my little brother shudder as we watched her use it.
Internalizing the required body image with regards to facial and leg hair and proceeding to assume responsibility for their ritual removal was just the beginning. Smelling good was another feminine duty. My mother had a beautiful round box of Lanvin Arpège body powder, with a big powder puff inside and the little Art Deco logo of a woman bending protectively over a child on top, and she’d powder herself with it, and sometimes treat me to a powdering after a shower, too, making me feel like a “big girl.”
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One hot summer day when I was around 10 or 11, I noticed I was getting whiffs of what I thought was the smell of ketchup now, cumin then, or maybe… could it be hot dogs? It was mystifying. In a moment of epiphany I followed my nose to… my armpit.
I sighed and marched to my parents’ bedroom once again. Their medicine cabinet had become my portal to adulthood, filled with the tools of adult rituals. There I found the Ban roll-on, and rolled it on. “Ban,” I thought, “Ban the smell.” Now that I recognized the odor of B.O., it smelled less like hot dogs and more like B.O. We couldn’t have me smelling like B.O. People got made fun of at school for having B.O. even when they didn’t actually have B.O.
My first Ban was in a glass bottle with a rollerball on top, and it’s shape and color made it look kind of like a penis (I knew because I’d seen my little brothers’ when we were all young enough to run around naked), the liquid inside it a pale, milky pink with a slightly powdery, mild, baby powder-like fragrance. It mesmerized me and reminded me of the smell of pink plastic baby dolls, which I intuited was how I should smell.
By the time I was 12 or 13 I learned how to pluck my eyebrows properly by reading tutorials in Seventeen, a glossy magazine marketed to teenagers as a sort of pre-woman’s glossy, indoctrinating young women in the pursuit of the closest approximation of feminine physical perfection possible and priming them for the colossal mind-fuck hell of attracting-and-keeping-a-man to come.
There were other smaller moments, like my first bra, called “My First Bra” (that’s what it said on the packaging), with its white, sterile-looking padding that prevented me from scratching my budding breasts (luckily I had read about this itchiness, which I guess was just due to the skin stretching to accommodate their growth), something I was dying to do often. I resigned myself instead to surreptitiously pushing them against the hard edge of my desk at school to quell the itch.
There were all sorts of beauty aisle products being marketed towards teenagers like me, and I used them feeling doubtful, slightly lost, not sure I needed or wanted them. Something was happening but I wasn’t sure what yet. Later I’d realize I was learning and becoming faithful to brand names, learning the names of the gods and goddesses honored by the personal care rituals I would be participating in from now on.
When we are older and look back on it, we realize how little a young woman needs to be beautiful. Everyone looks beautiful when they’re young. But according to Seventeen magazine — and, when I graduated to the glossies for grown up women, Vogue, Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan, et al — I needed lots and lots of makeup.
For my 16th birthday, my mother bought me my first high quality cosmetics. There was a set of Clarins (French!) moisturizer and toner for younger women in fancy milk glass bottles with peachy pink caps, instead of red ones. This peachy color was obviously meant to convey innocence, not sexuality, possibly to make sure mothers didn’t feel threatened by their daughters’ budding sexuality and attractiveness to men. This, of course, was a symbolic, useless precaution in a patriarchy.
My mother also bought me a jar of “foundation” (a beauty item akin to artists’ gesso, or paint primer) in a color slightly paler than my own skin color (because she wanted me to look less Latin and more Anglo-Saxon), and a small trunk replete with every other cosmetic you could possibly imagine applying to your face on top of it. It contained palettes of eye shadows, lipsticks, blushers, eyeliners, lip liners — the works.
“You’re a woman now,” said my mother, and left me to it.
I grasped at it all desperately, intuiting that my appearance had everything to do with my ability to eventually leave my parents’ house and navigate the world in the hopes of earning either a high level of financial autonomy or a good marriage. At that point my thoughts were more:
I shopped with my best friend for fashionable clothing that would hide my body just enough to look demure but still be enticing to the right kind of young man — meaning the kind of young man who would introduce me to his parents, rather than statutorily raping me in the back seat of his car, not that the former scenario necessarily excluded the latter one, but…well, fingers crossed.
I eventually forewent dating in my teens, aborting my first date just as I was about to go out the front door with a nice boy named George as my mother exhorted me with hand gestures to put more blusher on. To her (and probably George’s) shock, I said, “Let’s face it, there’s really no point to this.” (I’m sorry, George, wherever you are! It was nothing personal!) It just seemed like a lot of effort for nothing: I was still only 16 or 17! Where was this going? But for the next few years I continued to go through all the motions of preening and grooming, practicing for a future in which I’d be ready to sacrifice my time and energy in the pursuit of love.
By the age of 18, I knew, without yet pinning it down as a sociological observation, that being a woman meant spending a major part of my time and income on the upkeep and outward appearance of my body. The minimum requirement was making sure it didn’t smell or look unkempt. The ideal was to look simultaneously young, clean, fresh, soft, nubile, sexy, and magical, at all times (and for as long as possible as I aged). But not so much so that I could be ridiculed as vain, or be blamed for being raped.
I spent a good hour every morning deploying all these cosmetics and “personal care” products, then dressing up in fashionable clothes. I’d spend more time shopping to restock, revise, and research new variations of it all. There is no doubt why girls and women do their shopping together as a social pastime — it kills two birds with one stone. You don’t really have time for all that shopping and friendship, in addition to dating, school and employment.
When I finally became sexually active, I surmised that love and/or great sex were the payoffs for all this priming and presenting of my body. It wasn’t long before I learned that with sex and/or love came new duties: sustain a continual fantasy of sensual femininity for my lovers. Now I had to make my body soft, hairless and inodorous in places no one ever saw (or smelled up close) before: under my clothing and under my underclothing. It was as if my underclothes became my outer clothes: it seemed like I was losing bodily sovereignty and a layer of boundaries every time I passed a milestone in my life as a woman.
I’ll never forget my first “Brazilian.” I did it on the request of a lover. I made him pay for it because it seemed so unnecessary. It was the latest thing, inspired by the porn that Gen X’ers were so fond of. I thought it was ridiculous. The esthetician left what was popularly known as a “landing strip,” but which looked to me more like a Hitler mustache on my mons. So I had her remove the strip. This only left me completely hairless, which I thought looked ridiculous, too. But, whatever.
Waxing proved to be a hit with the boys, so I learned to wax my own pubic hairs, and even made my own sugar wax to economize on salon visits. I considered this to be proof that I was the epitome of the “cool girlfriend”: my pudenda were always acceptable to my lovers at the least expense and effort to myself.
Before a date it would often occur to me that I was grooming myself as if I were a virgin sacrificing my body to a volcano god. I would shave my legs and armpits, bleach my mustache and sideburns, pluck my eyebrows, wash and blow-dry my hair. I exfoliated my skin with a sugar or salt rub so that it was smooth and soft. I pumiced my feet and applied pleasantly scented oils (neroli was all the rage in the 90s) and lotions to my body. I gave myself or paid a professional to give me a manicure and a pedicure. Then I’d apply makeup, a little perfume, put on my best undergarments and prettiest clothes. I would give myself to my Volcano God after a ritual called “dinner and a movie.”
The funny thing was — and this started as a thought at the back of my head that eventually became a frequent out-loud observation amongst girlfriends — it felt like almost the exact same ritual I went through for job interviews.
A moment came when I had to stop taking The Pill, and the initial hormonal imbalance resulted in adult acne. I began taking a medication called Roaccutane. My acne wasn’t terrible, but it was against the rules in my job as a Parisian fashion model at the time. The medicine made my skin unbelievably thin and smooth, which was a plus. On the con side, the Roaccutane made me feel depressed (depression being one of its known side effects). One day, under its effects, I made the mistake of looking into a “True Mirror,” a mirror cabinet that reverses the image so that you can see how people see you, instead of seeing yourself in reverse, the way you usually see yourself.
Most people are shocked when they look into a “true mirror.” But I saw nothing odd at all. I was mystified, till I realized I had conditioned myself after years of modeling and dressing up for auditions and “go-sees” to the point that I always saw myself the way everyone else saw me. This realization was what angered and shocked me into quitting modeling that year. I didn’t even go back to my agency to pick up my last check.
I lived on my savings till they ran out, which wasn’t a long time, since I had never been much of a financial success, having only been one of the trendy “ugly models” of the time. The trend had passed, and with it had gone my livelihood. On the bright side, since the trend had basically democratized beauty, there were a lot fewer “ugly” girls in the world.
During this crisis of self-perception, I forwent all the trappings of feminine upkeep and wore no makeup, doing nothing to modify my appearance at all. I covered my mirrors. My only concession was to use a pocket mirror to aid in brushing and flossing my teeth. All my hair grew in, all over my body. I would stroke my armpit hair sometimes, and reflect that I was a human animal. I felt like my own pet. It was pleasant.
When I ran out of money, I went back to work as a showroom model, and out came the lady razors and off came my armpit hair and leg hair, and away went my unibrow and mustache. Out came my makeup bag and my “nice” clothes, including my flesh-colored thong underwear, which I’d learned not to throw out every time I thought I was quitting modeling, because experience showed I’d always be drawn back in by financial need. At least I only had to do this a few times a year, as it was seasonal work.
When I finally really did quit modeling, I worked at a software company in Paris that catered to the fashion and photography business. Instead of trying to look glam, I cut my hair short and wore slightly androgynous clothing, striving to look fashionable but unapproachable. I needed to be taken seriously when I arrived at an agency to install network hardware and software, and the less likely my clients were to recognize me as a former model, the better it was for me.
When I decided to quit software for writing and drawing, I returned to the United States, and guess what? I got sucked back into modeling again and had to buy a bunch of flesh-colored thongs. This time it was fit modeling, which I did for the next 12 years.
It was a great day job, and it made me very good money for awhile, but it always felt like a concession. Wearing so much makeup and high heels was, to me, symbolic of my lack of power to choose a different job. There was no other job I could think of that I had skills for that would pay the rent. So I dolled myself up. At first, as I walked out the door to go to work, my husband would tell me I looked beautiful.
Imagine his surprise when I reacted in anguish, saying, “You think I don’t know how look? Everything I did this morning was about passing myself off as younger and prettier than I am, so that I can make a living amongst people who judge me from every angle, in varying levels of dress and undress. The pressure is crushing me. Your appraisal of my looks before I even leave the house makes me feel like I’m not safe even in my own home. When I want you to tell me how I look, I’ll ask you. If you want to tell me something, tell me you love me.”
From that day on, this is what he said:
And that’s why I loved him so much.
One day during a fitting a client said, “Oh my god! You have a gray hair!” I’d always promised myself I’d stop modeling before I had to color my hair. But I needed the money. Cartooning wasn’t paying enough now that the recession had dried up the sales of original artwork and the paid public appearance gigs. My husband wasn’t making enough to support me if I wanted to quit and try something new, and he was getting old. I was worried about our future. So, I colored away the grays in my hair for my last two years of fit modeling. During those two years, I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was trying to “pass” for young, and it felt like a daily humiliation.
By the time I was in my early 50s, which is where I am even now as I write these words, we had moved to a small town an hour or so away from New York City. I soon quit my job to take care of my husband after his cancer diagnosis. It was not a dire one, so we were optimistic. It was scary to quit my job before I’d planned to, but it also felt liberating. I decided to stop shaving off all my “superfluous” body hair, like that time I’d quit modeling in Paris.
I had already felt free not to shave as often for my husband. For one thing, he was way too cool to object instead of adapt to my decisions about my personal appearance. And then, he was older: he probably didn’t notice it due to failing eyesight, nor feel it with his calloused artist’s hands, much less care about it because he loved me for who I was — and let’s face it, part of who I was, was a woman 20 years younger than him, so was he going to complain about a little leg hair when he was getting sexual access to choice inventory? This was one of the many smartass “inside jokes” we shared.
After he died, it shocked me that the world kept on turning in spite of what we had been through. I discovered that not wearing all that makeup or plucking my eyebrows anymore had not caused the world to stop turning, either.
I sat still as it turned and wondered many things, among which:
Why I had ever spent so much time, energy and hard-earned money trying to be beautiful as I walked on the face of this Earth when the only thing waiting at the end if it all was death? The things I used to do in the name of beauty and femininity now seemed like ridiculous rituals, a form of obsessive-compulsive behavior, a form of insanity, even.
When my brothers came to visit me one day, I told them I didn’t want them to think I had stopped plucking my eyebrows and wearing makeup and shaving my legs because my husband had died and I was “letting myself go” out of apathy. No, this was a political statement. I was rejecting conventional expectations and embracing what I, myself, decided was my natural beauty. I would adorn myself as and when I pleased myself, and no one else.
I wanted to be attractive on at least approximately the same terms as men were: with a certain level of critical objectivity and a minimum of time and money spent to that end. Vanity and insecurity would win sometimes, of course. But, I told my brothers, I actually liked my hairy legs — they made me feel powerful — and I loved the way my eyebrows looked now that they had grown in. I found myself “handsome.” So, they were not to worry. This was not a sign of disarray.
So, here I am now, at age 53, living in this small, suddenly trendy town, where “hipsters” abound. It turns out I’m not alone. Looking around, I’ve noticed I’m part of a class of women in a position of relative privilege, possessing either youth and/or financial independence.
Financial independence (or youth, another kind of currency) here means, in terms of our outward appearance, that:
1- We can have gray hair and not try to “pass” as young (and also, young women can have gray hair as an aesthetic option).
2- We can go braless without fear of provoking men into attacking us or assaulting us with observations of the sort I endured in the subway of New York City, like, “You have pointy breasts,” or “Is it cold in here?”
3- We can have hairy legs and armpits and even forego deodorant in the name of good health and of embracing our natural selves.
These are things we can choose because, like I said, we are relatively safe here. Of course, there are women who don’t choose these things. Other women simply can’t afford to color their hair every few weeks, and some can’t even afford makeup or razors, or a new bra when their old one falls apart. Gray hair, or un-disappeared nipples aren’t a political statement for them. Being “natural” is as much a fashion/political-choice/non-choice today as having a tan in the old days used to be. In those days the thing the rich and the homeless shared was a deep, even tan.
Patti Smith is proof that a woman can wear men’s clothes and have a mustache when she doesn’t have to work for anyone but herself. I aspire to Patti Smith-hood.
I understand that role models like Patti Smith and other privileged women not attempting to “pass” as younger are what will at first make it possible for others to emulate them with societal approval. I also understand that it’s perfectly possible for such freedom to become a “look” that becomes de rigeur for at least as long as that trend may last.
Websites like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop now make looking young and beautiful at 50+ without makeup or surgery (or the illusion of no makeup or surgery) obligatory. Having a well-toned pelvic floor, an alkaline body, and a clean spirit is the new, nearly-impossible-to-attain (or even prove) beauty standard. You must pay dearly to make sure your insides look as beautiful as your outsides, even if no one can see them. The beauty will shine out of your eyes, as Roald Dahl once said. More like the smug self-satisfaction, but hey, maybe you’ve earned the right to be smug if your pelvic floor is toned at any age. Shine on! Maybe that’s what the Mona Lisa is smiling about. But know this: having a well-toned pelvic floor doesn’t count for anything unless you also look like you have a toned pelvic floor.
I now trade almost all the time and money I used to spend on the cosmetic upkeep of my body every day for time and money spent on some very basic things I do to help my body in its transition into post-menopause (like exercise, to avoid osteoporosis, and keep me fitting into my clothes so I don’t have to go buy a whole new wardrobe for my middle age). Sometimes I buy silicone sesamoid pads to stick to the soles of my feet when I feel obliged to wear more “dressy,” less supportive shoes for what I consider “ceremonial” events), but now I mostly spend my time and money on my writing and drawing. I know I’ll never lose my vanity and that as I age people will approve, or people will disapprove; but I know now that my real job is to focus on what I’m called to do, and hope no one will burn me at the stake or throw me into a lake tied to a chair to see if I float or not.
I still have days when I can’t leave the house without putting on some mascara or a little lip color. Sometimes I’ll even use a little eyeliner, for a “smokey eye” — something older ladies like me should avoid because without supervision and constant retouching you can end up looking like a raccoon. The little wrinkles around my eyelids are like little tributaries from your eyes that carry the pigment away and into your “crow’s feet.” I’ve been conditioned to want to pretty up from time to time, that’s a fact.
And to whomever wants to object with, “But it’s my right to doll myself up if I want to! Who are you to look down on it?” I say, me. I’m talking about me and what I feel about it. You go do whatever you want. I’m not talking about you: don’t be paranoid. Me, I feel duped whenever I get nervous enough to put on a full face of makeup. I feel like a sell-out. I look in the mirror and I think I look fake and ridiculous and tragic, like something out of “Death in Venice,” but I also know that I’ll feel ridiculous without it somehow.
And at least until the apocalypse, you’ll still find me plucking a chin hair or two or three (or four, god help me!) every few days. As a friend once said, “They look like fucking Slim Jims” in my 20x mirror. Horrifying!
Meanwhile, my accountant suggests that I might want to get back into modeling as one of those gray haired models you see in the ads…
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To donate bras: https://www.brarecycling.com/
To donate interview suits and other clothes: https://www.jailstojobs.org/free-interview-clothes/
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Carolita Johnson is a writer, storyteller and cartoonist who contributes regularly to the New Yorker.
Editor: Sari Botton