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.