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Ben leads the Editorial team at WordPress.com / Automattic, and contributes to Longreads, Discover, and The Daily Post.

How Do You Name a Not-Quite-Fat Ken Doll?

The new lineup of Ken Dolls — seeking to represent a more multicultural, physically diverse populace (read: client base) — landed earlier this week to much fanfare. Some of the reactions were laudatory; some were less so (who can resist a man-bun joke, after all?). Caity Weaver, writing at GQ, got to follow the creative process leading to the new dolls’ release. Through her eyes, we learn how even an attempt to “celebrate diversity” often requires so much semantic and design acrobatics that it’s not very clear who the celebration is for, and who might still be excluded from it. Case in point: the tortured internal discussions at Mattel around what to call the “heavier” version of Barbie’s companion — after they’d already decided not to make him fat (“You don’t want to go too much,” as Ray Cavalluzzi, a Mattel sculptor, put it).

“With Barbie [it was] clear what was offensive with the curvier doll versus what wasn’t,” says Michelle Chidoni, a polished, deftly amiable executive from the global brand communications department. We are sitting in a capacious conference room surrounded by Barbies in fashions so cutting-edge that to describe them would be illegal. But I will reveal to the reader that a great multitude of the outfits are both fabulous and fun. “People [in focus groups] didn’t want to be called ‘plus-size.’ ‘Curvy’ was the clear winner. [But] where ‘curvy’ in the female world of fashion has become something that’s desirable and sexy and positive, the men’s fashion world has not gone there yet.”

Mattel’s constant aim when describing body types is to unearth a marketing term with “a neutral-to-positive association.” They don’t always find it on the first try. Or second. Or third. Initially, in their attempt to recapture the proud spirit of “curvy” for a male doll, the Barbie team borrowed a word from the boys’ clothing industry: “husky.” Focus-group reactions were disastrous.

“‘Husky’ just turned off every guy we talked to,” says Chidoni, shaking her head. “A lot were really traumatized by that—as a child, shopping in a husky section.” “Athletic” was rejected on the notion that athletes can have vastly different body types. “Brawny” didn’t fare much better. And so: “broad.”

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Our Contemporary Notion of Self-Esteem Was Born — Surprise! — in 1980s California

The connection between how we feel about ourselves and how well we do (at work, in school, in our personal lives) feels unshakeable. Doesn’t it seem intuitive — if not axiomatic — that confidence in our abilities begets success? Not so fast. In an excerpt from his recent book, shared at the Guardian, Will Storr uncovers the recent history of self-esteem — including its origins in shaky science that was expertly packaged and marketed by John “Vasco” Vasconcellos, a California legislator on a mission:

In the mid-80s, the notion that feeling good about yourself was the answer to all your problems sounded to many like a silly Californian fad. But it was also a period when Thatcher and Reagan were busily redesigning western society around their project of neoliberalism. By breaking the unions, slashing protections for workers and deregulating banking and business, they wanted to turn as much of human life as possible into a competition of self versus self. To get along and get ahead in this new competitive age, you had to be ambitious, ruthless, relentless. You had to believe in yourself. What Vasco was offering was a simple hack that would make you a more winning contestant.

Vasco’s first attempt at having his task force mandated into law came to a halt in 1984, when he suffered a heart attack. His belief in positive thinking was such that, in an attempt to cure himself, he wrote to his constituents asking them to picture themselves with tiny brushes swimming through his arteries, scrubbing at the cholesterol, while singing, to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat: “Now let’s swim ourselves/ up and down my streams/Touch and rub and warm and melt/the plaque that blocks my streams.” It didn’t work. As the senate voted on his proposal, Vasco was recovering from seven-way coronary bypass surgery.

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In Bed-Stuy, the Ghost of Robert Moses is Alive and Well

It’s tricky to write about gentrification. Beyond the genre’s clichés (can you avoid the well-meaning, clueless pour-over barista?), there’s often a tension lurking between the stories of real people (whether the displaced or the invaders) and the broader, structural conditions that produce their respective urban migration in the first place. At n+1, an excerpt from Brandon Harris’ new book on Bedford-Stuyvesant draws a nuanced picture of one of the current epicenters of gentrification in the U.S. He shows how complex this phenomenon is on the ground (with various configurations of race, class, and personal history coming into play), and how inextricable it is from processes that started decades ago, including the discriminatory urban-planning policies put into place by 20th-century “Master Builder” Robert Moses.

In late August, Highline Residential, a realty company that was spending significant amounts of money developing Bedford-Stuyvesant properties, released a promotional video called This Is Bed-Stuy, in which smiling blond twentysomethings give a “neighborhood tour.” Many longtime residents found the video—in which the pair of pale hosts sip expensive coffee and brunch cocktails at recently opened establishments while offering testimony to the neighborhood’s amenities and vibrancy—deeply offensive, seeing no mention of the institutions with which they associated Bed-Stuy. Highline Residential didn’t give a shit about them, the general sentiment went, other than wondering when they’d get the fuck out. Suddenly New York magazine and the Daily News were falling over themselves profiling entire blocks of Bedford Stuyvesant real estate, interviewing generations of owners and tenants, publishing op-eds by black journalism professors who had long lived in the district, and interviewing women who had been pushed out to East New York, or all the way to the Rockaways. [Robert] Moses, and the forces of history that animated his mindset, would drive the dispossessed right out of this city if the market allowed.

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Into the Woods: Three Personal Essays on ‘Twin Peaks’

The return of Twin Peaks fills me with dread. It’s an excited dread — I can’t imagine not watching the third season of a show that has shaped my teenage years, and which I never expected to see brought back to life. But the unease is real. If it stinks, can its failure leave the original wholly intact? (I doubt it.) If I think it’s great, can I trust my own reaction? To what extent can I decouple aesthetic judgment from the thick ropes of nostalgia that bind the mythology of the show to my carefully constructed narrative of coming of age?

I watched the original two seasons of Twin Peaks as a ninth-grader in suburban Tel Aviv. The world it depicted was not simply foreign; beyond the sheer power of narrative and emotion this was a largely hermetic surface. It invited obsessed, but mostly context-less, fandom. U.S. viewers have always seen in Lynch’s work a dark distortion of ’50s Americana; I observed it like a creepy diorama in a natural-history museum.

For better or for worse, this won’t be the case with the third season. I’ve now lived in British Columbia for six years. Those douglas firs, those clouds, that delicate balance of extreme beauty and extreme dreariness are no longer exotic. Strip away the otherworldly elements of the show, and you’re left with development, poverty, sexual violence, immigration, drug and human trafficking: the very same issues facing the Pacific Northwest / Lower Mainland I call home. What will this proximity do to the way I absorb the new season? I don’t know. For now it’s just adding another layer to the dread.

To help me process this feeling of cultural malaise, I’ve been reading a lot about the show in recent months: from its problematic representation of Native Americans and Indigenous culture to the making of Angelo Badalamenti’s matchless score. I stumbled on some contemporary features from 1990, which capture the show’s initial reception in the U.S. — something I couldn’t have experienced firsthand. But the pieces that I’ve enjoyed the most (maybe it’s the relief of seeing my narcissism refracted through others’ experiences?) are personal essays about the show and its place in the writer’s life. I belatedly discovered the Twin Peaks Project, a curated selection of writing on the show by author Shya Scanlon, and scoured its archives at length. Below are three pieces that stayed with me.

1. “The Trees, The Trees.” (Nathan Huffstutter, The Los Angeles Review of Books, February 6, 2015)

Huffstutter spent his childhood as a Pacific Northwest transplant — his family had moved from Southern California to Bend, Oregon, in the late 1970s (he has since returned to San Diego). This essay weaves together memories of teenage angst — in 1990 he wasn’t watching Twin Peaks but rather listening to Sonic Youth and the Pixies — with an exploration of the unspoken acts of violence that lurk under the surface in small towns both fictional and real. It’s a rich mix (Martin Heidegger and Michel Houellebecq make important cameo appearances) and it’s deeply satisfying and troubling.

2. “Our Doubles, Ourselves: Twin Peaks and My Summer at the Black Lodge.” (Linnie Greene, Hobart, December 12, 2014)

“In the first summer of my adulthood, after graduation, I would insert a VHS tape, already vintage, and inhale Twin Peaks like life support, transfixed and terrified.” Greene recounts a tumultuous period in her life — it included depression, an abusive relationship, and sexual assault — and how watching the show gave her a new, more sobering perspective on her position (and her limitations) as a young adult.

3. “Falling and Always Falling: Twin Peaks and the Clear-Cut Landscape.” (Matt Briggs, Moss, Winter 2014)

The endless forests of the Pacific Northwest are a key character in Twin Peaks; decades later, some establishing shots are still seared into my memory. In this piece, Briggs — who grew up in the Snoqualmie Valley, where many of the show’s outdoor scenes were filmed — focuses on the abrupt transitions between old-growth forest and human-built areas. He lingers on the ever-present threat of development, and how it plays out not just in the show’s narrative, but also in the region it depicts: “The fictional town is a location that reflects the tension between the fecundity of the ancient forests and the constant change of the new. The landscape of Twin Peaks represents loss inside of loss of loss.”

How ‘International Airbnb Style’ Became the Dominant Aesthetic of Our Time

You’ve seen this room before: bright walls; a coffee table or shelves made out of reclaimed wood; some fabric — a rug, curtains — featuring an abstract geometric pattern; a knockoff mid-century chair. Is it your local coffee shop or craft brewery? A co-working space? Your living room? At The Verge, Kyle Chayka looks at the recent ascendancy of “Airspace” aesthetics — a style of vaguely quirky, easily reproducible minimalism that we now find in Airbnbs across the planet.

In 2011, a New York artist and designer named Laurel Schwulst started perusing Airbnb listings across the world in part to find design inspiration for her own apartment. “I viewed it almost as Google Street View for inside homes,” she says. Schwulst began saving images that appealed to her and posting them on a Tumblr called “Modern Life Space.” But she had a creeping feeling something was happening across the platform. “The Airbnb experience is supposed to be about real people and authenticity,” Schwulst says. “But so many of them were similar,” whether in Brooklyn, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, or Santiago.

There was the prevalence of mass-produced but tasteful furniture, for one. “It’s kind of an extension of Ikea showrooms,” she says. But the similarities went beyond mass-production. The ideal Airbnb is both unfamiliar and completely recognizable: a sprinkling of specific cultural symbols of a place mixed with comprehensible devices, furniture, and decoration. “It’s funny how you want these really generic things but also want authenticity, too,” Schwulst says.

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For Caregivers from the Philippines, the Israeli Dream Is Fragile

In colloquial Hebrew, the word filipinit — a woman from the Philippines — is no longer a simple demonym; Filipinas have dominated the eldercare sector in Israel for so long that it has become a generic term for “caregiver.” In the New York Times Magazine, Ruth Margalit explores the stories of precariously employed women and the complicated bonds of co-dependence and isolation that form between them and the elderly for whom they provide care. Along the way, she revisits a recent episode that highlighted the fragile status of Filipinas in Israel: Rose Fostanes won the local version of The X Factor in 2014, only to be forced out of the country two years later, as soon as her visa expired.

In 2013, the Filipino community in Israel came under an unexpected spotlight when Rose Fostanes, a 46-year-old Filipino caregiver, auditioned for the Israeli version of the singing competition “The X Factor.” A short video clip aired before Fostanes’s performance, mentioning that she lived in South Tel Aviv with three other caregivers: “I love my job because I like to take care of old people,” Fostanes said. The clip drew knowing chuckles from the audience. Short and plump, in a green shirt and jeans, Fostanes represented the unlikely, diamond-in-the-rough heroine audiences love to embrace. Her rendition of Shirley Bassey’s “This Is My Life” became a national sensation; more than half of all Israeli households tuned in to watch her win the season’s finale. But the praise she received was tinged with condescension: She was shown offering to make a sandwich for the supermodel Bar Refaeli, the show’s host, and the judges kept saying how “proud” they were of her.

After the show ended, Fostanes was supposed to land a lucrative record contract, and she quit her job as caregiver. But her first single failed to sell, and her management company later dropped her. Last year, after a protracted legal battle over her visa status, she returned to the Philippines, where she now makes a living performing in small bars and clubs across Manila. “She got tired of chasing her dream,” a friend of hers, Winston Santos, told me.

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Introducing the ‘Davos for Happiness,’ Powered by Coconut Water

The first-ever World Happiness Summit (hashtag #WOHASU) recently convened in Miami, attracting 1,200 attendees committed to the TEDification of a basic, if elusive, human emotion. At Outside, Peter Andrey Smith provides a firsthand account of the event, where MIT researchers rubbed shoulders with consciousness lecturers and life coaches.

The program freely combined the statistical rigor of economists and psychologists with the business acumen of brand ambassadors and at least one Chief Happiness Officer, alongside those practicing a “sacred science” with a New Age or magical bent. Late on Saturday morning, a loud whoop went up from the Keynote Area, the darkened room where attendees sat in folding chairs and reclined on plush cushions under white teepee-like structures, massaging each other’s necks and stretching. The speakers on the nearby stage led a panel discussion on the “Practice of Happiness.” They talked about “the millions of people on your platform.” Of “building a movement.” Of “getting into your tribes and broadcasting happiness.”

Meanwhile, in the WOHASU Bazaar, a group sat, eyes closed, with brain-sensing Muse headbands wrapped around their temples. The device contained a compact electroencephalography (EEG) system and was designed to be a “personal meditation assistant.” Two men from Spain touted a virtual-reality platform called Psious, which offered exposure therapy by way of VR goggles and software. Nearby, Gary Cook sat behind a table and sold books. “This is not my type of event, let’s just put it that way,” he told me. “Feel like I need some Zen tea—two booths down.” The day’s bestsellers, Gary said, included Before Happiness, The Happiness Adventure, The How of Happiness, and Even Happier.

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How ‘Austin Powers’ Became the First Cult Hit of the DVD Era

No movie channels pre-Millennium, “the end of history is kinda fun!” exuberance better than 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. The film, which turned 20 this week, feels incredibly out of step with our dystopian present, yet the cheap gags and sophomoric puns still work. (Did you remember Carrie Fisher played the Evils’ family therapist? I didn’t).

At the Hollywood Reporter, Ryan Parker presents the cast and crew’s memories of making this unlikely cult movie — including the realization they had a DVD-fueled sleeper hit on their hands.

[Director Jay] Roach It opened internationally on the weekend Princess Diana died, and there was no one in the world in the mood for Americans mocking English people. There was some reference to Prince Charles that did end up getting cut for the U.K. release.

[Actor Seth] Green The movie came out and did fine. I think the total take after eight weeks was something like $50 million.

Roach But then DVDs kicked in — they were a new market channel, and Warner Bros. was a pioneer. Mike and I did the commentary and worked on bonus features. They asked us to do a sequel, and I figured the video numbers must have done really well. They hide the video numbers, so you never know. To this day, it’s in the red. I don’t think that movie is listed as in profit, which is hilarious to me.

[Writer and actor Mike] Myers I knew we had something when I was driving on Halloween in Los Angeles and I couldn’t get past Santa Monica Boulevard because of a parade, so I sat on the hood of the car and I saw like 15 Austin Powers go by and one of the Austin Powers spotted me and came over. I had a picture with all these Austin Powers, which was unbelievably cool.

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The “Facebook of Money” That Wasn’t

To paraphrase Tolstoy, every struggling startup struggles in its own way. Except they all seem to feature extravagant soirées, hazy business plans, and round after round of beer pong on a SoMa roof deck. At Fast Company, Ainsley Harris charts the decline and fall of Tilt, a social-payments platform billed as the “Facebook of Money.” Joining other examples in the emerging genre of schadenfreude-laced startup postmortems, it offers an almost-wistful glimpse at Silicon Valley culture at the precise moment when easy funding became a thing of the past.

Over time, Beshara’s leadership alienated some of Tilt’s more experienced hires, who chose to move on rather than challenge their rookie boss. Meanwhile, Tilt continued to attract young talent barely old enough to join the company’s happy hours.

“There was too much focus on culture and creating this nirvana of a company. This is not a fraternity, this is a business,” says a former manager. Beshara seemed determined to keep the party going until the bitter end. Last September, for example, with a cash crunch imminent, he pressed forward with Tilt’s final Lake Tahoe retreat. Only a small group of employees had any idea that a sale was already in the works.

Looking back now, Beshara acknowledges the imbalance. “I feel very strongly that you want to end up on the side of human connection, human relationships,” he says. “But I think you can index too far on that and really miss the importance of really high standards.”

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Before Becoming an Art Critic, Jerry Saltz Wanted to Draw 10,000 Dante-Inspired Altarpieces

In a revealing memoir piece at New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz — the magazine’s art critic — retraces his early years as an artist in 1970s Chicago (spolier alert: it didn’t work out). It’s a gripping read not just for artists and art lovers, but for anyone who’s ever grappled with the tricky interplay of productivity, mediocrity, and coming to terms with one’s own limitations. Despite his failure to build a career as an artist, I loved how absurdly (admirably?) ambitious his plans were for his magnum opus: composing 100 illustrated altarpieces for each of Dante’s Divine Comedy cantos, for a total of 10,000:

I began my “Inferno” project just before dawn on the Thursday before Easter 1975, because Maundy Thursday is when Dante’s story begins in the poem — lost in “the dark wood of error,” having strayed from the “true way.” I planned to finish on Easter, the same day Dante finished his own journey, in 1300. I would finish in 2000, by which time I would have made 100 opening-and-closing altarpieces for each of the 100 cantos of The Divine Comedy. The 10,000 finished altarpieces were supposed to represent an idea of the infinite and a way to set myself free. Why Dante? Especially as I barely read at all and didn’t believe in God? I think because The Divine Comedy, which is a gigantic organized allegorical system where every evil deed is punished in accord with the law of equal retribution and divine love, supplied me with the formulated structure I craved. The highly established internal architectonics, the almost primitive definitiveness, what Beckett called the “neatness of identification,” were psychological shelter and weapons of revenge for me. A way to right my own world, to grasp an order like that in the Bible: “all things by measure and number and weight.” Most of all, it was a vision of justice — the good being rewarded and the bad getting their punishments.

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