Monday, November 28, 2011

Women appear.

I've been thinking about cupcakes a lot recently. Not because I enjoy eating them all that much, but because they're one of those things that modern young women are supposed to like. Other 'things' (for want of a better word) in this category are: 'Sex and the City', girls' nights out, champagne, shoes, things that sparkle, having straight and/or glossy hair whilst being otherwise hairless, and being 'naughty' by 'pampering yourself.' These seem to have become symbols of young womanhood, a litany of seemingly inoffensive activities and consumables that keep women in the realm of the decorative. I want to rail against them because I don't want to be sweet and pretty and dainty. I don't want to be smooth and groomed and perfect-looking. And most of all, I don't want anyone telling me that I must be a modern young woman by doing modern young woman the way that I am supposed to.

Why? Because I find that this litany of things are founded in how we appear. This impression was only reinforced by John Berger's canonical 'Ways of Seeing', which I recently reread. It seems like the subtext hasn't changed since the 1970s, when he first wrote that men act and women appear. If we have leisure time, we must want to use it to groom ourselves. Our relaxation is having a facial, a manicure, getting our hair done. Or else we'll experience satisfaction by appearing in places where we will be seen, perhaps admired, perhaps approached. If we eat, and that for pleasure, it is "girly" fare: cupcakes, macaroons, champagne, cocktails. Colourful, sweet, insubstantial.

It is not that it is 'bad' to get a manicure (I got one last week, in fact) or enjoy cupcakes or what have you. I am not criticising women who enjoy those things. Yet at the same time, I am so frustrated at how the ways in which we're urged to be women is so unceasingly based in our appearance. Why are cupcakes so popular? Are they really the best invention to ever spring from a cake pan? Or is it because Carrie Bradshaw and co. liked them on 'Sex and the City' and we want to align ourselves with their glossy lifestyle? Is it because eating cupcakes marks us as a particular kind of girl? The kind of girl who has taste, who knows what's current and cool, but who is also typified by what she is 'not'- that is, not-threatening and 'not one of those girls who watches everything she eats.' The kind of girl who has her cake and eats it too. Do we like cupcakes because that's just what women are supposed to like?

Women, ladies, girls, I'm throwing my gauntlet down. I'm far from the first to do so, and I highly recommend delving deeper at Rachel Hills' excellent Musings of an Inappropriate Woman. But as for me, I'm not shaving my legs or underarms for the foreseeable future. People who are grossed out, deal with it. I don't have a problem with body hair and I think your disgust is bizarre. I must admit that I always feel a little sick after eating cupcakes (and yet a treasured memory is sharing a red velvet one with Mum on my birthday in New York two years ago.) I like 'Sex and the City' (the television series, the movies far less so) but it's definitely not a foundational text for me, nor one I want to model my life upon. Not that any of this really matters, anyway, does it? What I'm advocating is thoughtfulness and questioning. I want my femininity to be more than an appearance, and I don't want to do things just because everyone else is doing it. Because that's what I'm supposed to do. I think being a young woman is a far more interesting, original and dynamic experience than that narrow purview allows for.



NB. A great question is 'where does this message come from?' My gut feeling is that it emanates from the stories that we tell ourselves about how we should be, and many of those are circulated by the popular media and entertainment industries- your women's mags, chick flicks, chick lit and so on. Moreover, I suspect that it wouldn't be perpetuated if we didn't buy into it so wholeheartedly. But we do- and there's escapism in glamour, sure. But when those cultural messages start to restrict the expression of who we are and how we should be, we move onto uncertain ground. That's what I want to resist.

10 comments:

  1. I whole heartedly concur! But where does fashion fit into all this?

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  2. great post and a timely reminder for me. I haven't shaved for years and as I went to a meeting today with staff members at my Uni (in a sleeveless top)I caught sight of underarm hair and had the thought "should I shave before meeting these people?" How crazy!

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  3. Thanks guys. And Anon, good question! I realised after I posted that I didn't really delve into fashion... let me mull on it and do a follow-up post. I feel like stilettos are going to get a healthy look-in, though. Actually, heels in general. Check back tomorrow night.

    ps. Melissa, I know exactly what you mean! I was at work the other day in a sleeveless top when I remembered and had a pang of anxiety. Ha it's so absurd.

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  4. So, I was reading this and thinking "yes yes yes", and then I saw you linked me. Thanks for that! Absolutely loved the post. Like you, I really enjoy fashion (and enjoy the occasional cupcake and manicure), but the way I most enjoy spending time with my friends is just by hanging out and TALKING with them. Or going for dinner or drinks, or to the theatre or an art gallery. I find this idea that women are supposed to spend their social and leisure time shopping and preening, frankly, weird.

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  5. Hi! Are you familiar with Feminist Fashion Bloggers? I think you'll find a lot of like-minded folks there, and it's quite a bit of fun as well as thought-provoking reading: http://feministfashionbloggers.blogspot.com/

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  6. Me too, Rachel! And not just that we're supposed to do it but that we're supposed to WANT to do it- that these are the activities that we choose to do, by which we are identified. Sometimes when I do the preeny/glossy girl kind of activities, I even feel like I need to talk about why I'm doing them so I don't feel complicit in something that makes me really uneasy! (Stoked you liked it- I've been inhaling your feminist wedding series!)

    Thanks Fish Monkey, I wasn't... but now I will be! Lovely.

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  7. I really love what you've written here! But without wishing to be rude, I do find women who stop removing their body hair aesthetically confronting. I know this is a result of cultural conditioning, but unlike the pubic hair debate I think it's more of a fundamental difference between the public appearance and presentation of femininity/masculinity that I'm happy to conform with.

    So, more power to you and your pits! But I'm keeping my Lady Bic, and that doesn't necessarily make me 'bizarre' as you say.

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  8. Hey, thanks billie! Definitely didn't mean to criticise women who prefer to remove their hair... more the overt reactions of disgust/censorship from men and women who both a. dislike hair on other peoples' legs/armpits/upper lips etc. and b. aren't shy about voicing their opinion to said other people.

    I found it aesthetically confronting on myself at first too, to be honest, but that made me want to push back even more. Maybe I'm just stubborn! May you and your Lady Bic prosper this coming summer.

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  9. I love you so much Rosie posie <3 You are a goddess :-) People in Argentina treat me like there is something wrong with me when I say that if I have a daughter, I don't want to pierce her ears at birth. For one, I have always been a bit put off by babies with pierced ears, but much more importantly I don't want to teach my daughter that from day one she is required to change her appearance to be acceptable, because she needs to be beautiful and feminine (as it has been explained to me). And even less because it is painful! When she gets older if she wants to do it, fine. Urgh so much can be said about this topic, and as you made clear, it isn't about hating on other women when they want to preen, it is about the wanting to preen being a choice, not something we are trained to believe is necessary for us to be proper women. Rant over. Besos

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  10. Gig, I totally agree. And much more importantly, you're so precious to me! Don't change, like, ever. Besos xxx

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