The Arbitrary Rules We Let Rule Us

Just about every time I engage in some beauty ritual (which is daily, even if that just means taming bedhead though it usually means at least mascara and blush) I think about the time, money, and energy I’m wasting to live up to some nebulous, unspoken ideal. And then I think about all the time, money, and energy multiplied by the billions of women worldwide who engage in some form of beauty maintenance, and how much important shit we could get done if it was acceptable for us to throw on dress pants and a button down and be viewed as equally “professional” (which, it should be noted is a racist, sexist, and ableist concept) and “competent” as our male colleagues (though, of course, the rules for men of colour are a lot more rigid than for white men). So I thought I’d run down the list of things we are supposed to be consciously and unconsciously taking care of in order to perform our gender (and class and race) “properly”, some of the ways we receive these messages, and some of the consequences for failing to.

First, we’ve gotta be thin. Not *too* thin, though. And we need to appear to do it effortlessly. Because there’s nothing that’s more of a drag than a woman on a diet. And men love women who can EAT (while staying model thin)–which you would know if you’ve ever read any women’s magazine ever that has a “Here’s What Some Made Up Dude Says” column.

And we really should be white. If we’re not, though, we should a) play down the features that mark us as non-white (no matter how beautiful we know them to be), and b) be giddy that any man would be willing to exoticize and fetishize us.

Next, we’ve gotta keep our hair tight. Not short, because men don’t like short hair, but not too long, because that’s gross. And if we’re in a “professional” environment we really need to keep it back/up in some way, even if our job has nothing to do with food or hygiene. Oh, and don’t let your roots show. And you better not have any greys. I’m not qualified to speak to the reality of having Black hair but the one thing I do know is that it’s political as fuck, no matter which decision you make.

When it comes to clothes, we’ve gotta walk a tight line. Sexy without being trashy. Professional but effortlessly feminine. No Hilary pantsuits for me!

Make-up’s gonna vary a bit with your particulars. Either you need to look like you’re wearing none (while wearing lots) to be effortlessly gorgeous, or you need to be hyper done up with red lipstick and a cat-eye to match. And don’t forget the primer and concealer and foundation and blush and bronzer and illuminator and eyeshadow and mascara and it better all blend seamlessly with your real skin colour so you avoid the telltale jawline/neck disaster!

And of course it’s sandal season so your feet better be in top shape. Not just polish but buffing and smoothing and moisturizing and paraffin treatments. And your fingernails should be tastefully done. Not too long but not too short. Definitely not bitten to the quick. Either a subtle pink or just a nice clear coat. And no chips! God knows there’s nothing more embarrassing than chipped nail polish.

And you’d best be shaving/waxing/depilating/lasering your legs, underarms, and bikini line–at minimum. Really, you should be shorn of all hair save your head, eyebrows, and eyelashes. And god forbid you’ve got a naturally uncooperative body and find hair growing in strange places like tummies or toes or chin. Have you ever noticed that all the hair removal methods except shaving are immensely painful and could probably be used as torture methods? And shaving, while not painful, is time consuming and expensive as shit if you buy into the whole pink-razor, new blade every four shaves bullshit.

If you’re the type who goes to the gym you’d best be wearing something new, cute, and tight. Unless you’re fat, in which case you should probably just skip the gym. Or at least wear a tent so no one has to look at you. And you’d better not break a sweat and get a red face. And no lifting anything more than three pounds lest you turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1975.

In fact, you should just never sweat ever. Even when it’s 35 degrees (that’s 95 for you Yanks) with 80% humidity, a lady never sweats.

Now, you may be thinking this is hyperbolic, over the top to make a point. And it is. Sort of. Cause the thing is, I didn’t have to go read some feminist theory or google “beauty” or do anything else to come up with this list. I just had to take an inventory of the pressures I resist and give in to on a regular basis.

Now, I’m not saying I have someone yelling at me every day because my nail polish is chipped (though I do have an internal critic who is not happy with the current state of my Peacock Blue nails), but that’s not how these things work. It’s far more insidious. Because, honestly, a lot of us would probably tell our friend/boyfriend/mother to fuck off if they had this litany of things we had to do to be acceptable. But when we have these messages directed at us again and again and again in seemingly innocuous packages like the magazine we flip through in the checkout line, or the 10 minutes of Entertainment Tonight we catch at the gym, or unspoken expectations rather than an explicit dress code at work, or the utter perfection that is every heroine in a romantic comedy, they seep in. And all the while we dismiss them as “just media bullshit”.

But taken absent the cultural context, almost every one of these is a pretty ridiculous thing to do. If you really think about it for a minute, slathering god-knows-what on our faces to look like someone else (or, at least, a “better” version of ourselves), keeping our nails at a length that is frankly inconvenient and prone to breakage while making sure they’re a vibrant colour, and removing body hair for no reason other than that’s what society expects us to do is absurd. And yet we do it. To varying levels, we all do it. And we sink untold dollars and hours into running after an unachievable body in the hopes that it will, what? Make us more loveable? Make us more successful? Stave off loneliness and old age and ultimately death?

And what are we giving up for this illusory achievement? What could we be doing instead?

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