Let yourself go

I’m about to admit something that, in a patriarchy, is tantamount to a cardinal sin: I’m letting myself go.

Letting myself go. I choose that phrase intentionally — a phrase designed to strike fear in women and motivate resolute anti-aging regimes, ruthless food restrictions and, if we’re too far gone, a few nips and tucks. A short yet powerful phrase, “letting herself go” evokes shame, excuses and apologies about how embarrassed we are that, as women, we can’t defy the impacts of time. A phrase that reveals so much about where we are supposed to focus our time, attention, and resources.

I’ve spent the last year re-engaging with feminism. Not air-quote “feminism” that reframes mechanisms of oppression as empowering choices to avoid analyzing who these choices benefit and who they oppress. Actual feminism, the kind that recognizes women as a political class and sees the obsession we’re supposed to have with beauty as another tool used to control us — a learned compulsion that needs to be questioned, challenged and rejected as we continue our fight for liberation. So, despite a lifetime of conditioning, I’m rejecting my fear-based impulses to shave, wax, conceal, powder, buff, polish, moisturize, tone, shrink, augment, exfoliate, pluck, primp, and gloss.

Yet if a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she might have got? If she never takes off her high-heeled shoes, how will she ever know how far she could walk or how fast she could run? – Germaine Greer

In patriarchy, there is no nobler aspiration for a woman than to be beautiful — a particular type of beautiful, a type defined by men to benefit men. Beauty is taut and hairless, thin but not too thin. Beauty is buxom. Beauty is white. And, while men can be considered more attractive as they age, for women beauty is almost exclusively young.

Writing for Feminist Current, Alicen Grey astutely analyzed patriarchy’s obsession with youth as the foundation of female beauty, wrapping the many problematic aspects in a disturbing yet completely accurate phrase: “pedophile culture.” It’s no accident that in patriarchy, where men are socialized to dominate and women are conditioned to accept domination, aspirational female beauty is best represented by girls — females at their least powerful.

The power beauty holds over women is undeniable. On average, women spend 55 minutes a day attending to our hair and makeup. Ninety per cent of people who suffer from anorexia or bulimia are female. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the number of cosmetic procedures in the US increased 429 per cent from 1997 to 2014. In 2014, women accounted for 90 per cent of those procedures, 9.6 million in all.

Women don’t do this because we’re shallow. We do this because, from the moment we’re born, we’re bombarded with messages from family, friends, the media, music videos, Hollywood, random men on the street, and from one another that being considered beautiful is what we’re supposed to do — that this is what being a woman means. A closer look at the phrase “letting herself go” reveals how central appearance is to womanhood. In that phrase her attempt to conform to beauty standards is “herself.” It’s all of her.

In patriarchy, women are judged negatively not only for not being beautiful, but also for showing any signs of the enormous effort required to conform to an impossibly narrow beauty standard. We must not only be young and fresh-looking all the time, we must be naturally and effortlessly young and fresh-looking, and those of who appear to have put too much effort into the process are derided as superficial or high-maintenance.

The game is rigged against us — it’s designed to control us. But I, along with many other women, many more courageous than me, don’t want to play anymore.

I’m nowhere near the first feminist to challenge or reject patriarchy’s oppressive beauty standards. Many women before me have refused to play along and, as a result, have become invisible, less worthy, less than.  I draw on their courage as I continue to focus on all the other pieces of myself that have nothing to do with my appearance — as I continue letting myself go. Won’t you come with me?

Jindi Mehat is an East Vancouver-based second wave feminist who is reconnecting with feminism after several tours of duty in male-dominated corporate land. Follow her @jindi and read more of her work at Feminist Progression.

Jindi Mehat
Jindi Mehat

Contributor

Jindi Mehat is a Vancouver feminist activist and general rabble rouser.

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  • ptittle

    “Women don’t do this because we’re shallow. We do this because, from the
    moment we’re born, we’re bombarded with messages from family, friends,
    the media, music videos, Hollywood, random men on the street…”

    Honestly? I think if you pay any attention to the media, music videos, Hollywood, and random men on the street, with respect to how to live your life, you are shallow. As for family? Do you always do what your mom tells you? And get new friends.

    “shave, wax, conceal, powder, buff, polish, moisturize, tone, shrink, augment, exfoliate, pluck, primp, and gloss”

    Wow. I’ve done just two of those – shave my legs and pluck my eyebrows – and yes, b/c my mother told me I should – but as soon as I went to university and started thinking for myself? I stopped. And you know what? I wasn’t struck by lightning. My world didn’t come crashing down. What friends I had didn’t dump me. My grades didn’t drop.

    I know I’m going to invite LOTS of upset with this, but grow a spine!

    (These things are not hard. Hard is escaping a war-torn country and starting over. Hard if dealing with any one of a number of debilitating diseases on daily basis. Hard is getting a law degree. …)

    • Meghan Murphy

      “I think if you pay any attention to the media, music videos, Hollywood, and random men on the street, with respect to how to live your life, you are shallow.”

      That’s like saying that if you pay attention at all to the culture that surrounds you, you are shallow. I mean, are you suggesting individual simply ignore culture? I am influenced by all the things you list here — am I shallow?

      I also don’t agree that women who moisturize or exfoliate or use makeup are spineless.

      • ptittle

        Right. I should have said “uncritically accept” instead of “pay attention”.

        And ‘moisturize’ for dry itchy skin, sure; I was interpreting that as ‘moisturize’ to reduce wrinkles and look young and sexy and all nice for the male gaze.

        • Meghan Murphy

          Ok. Well I’ve been using anti-wrinkle cream for maybe ten years? I guess I’m spineless and shallow?

          I mean, I don’t accept these things uncritically, but at the same I still do care how I look. There are very few woman I know who don’t moisturize or wear makeup sometimes. I’m fairly certain we aren’t all spineless or shallow?

          I mean, I’m not going to kill myself working out incessantly or diet or get cosmetic surgery, but yeah, I use moisturizer and wear makeup and straighten my hair. I do still worry about my weight and about aging. I’m not promoting that, but I don’t think it would be particularly helpful for me to lie about such realities either…

          • jindi

            being honest about the complexities serves other women. it says to me that you understand how much we’re affected by the messages we’re taught and try to find a balance that works for you. i’m still figuring out the balance that works for me and, frankly, think it’s bizarre to suggest that women who struggle with this are shallow!

          • Tired feminist

            Because then everyone is “shallow” to some extent… Which wouldn’t exactly be a wrong thing to say, but then the conclusion is, again, that we’re all on the same boat and it’s silly to think of oneself as “different”. I agree with you.

    • Nun Ninja

      Your sole experience isn’t the model for other women. Many of whom will lose their jobs if they don’t present “respectable”. You also underestimate the depth of cultural conditioning and societal pressure that many women go through. It isn’t shallow because for them it is already something they have to do and is a cultural norm. Try telling a Japanese woman she is shallow and she will explain that looking good is about respect for the other person who has to see her face.

      You went to university and ‘grew a spine’, good for you. You sound privileged as fuck.

    • jindi

      your argument seems to underestimate both the power and subtlety of socialization. you may want to judge as shallow women who didn’t rid themselves of the performative aspects of female socialization as easily as you did, but that’s not my approach. mine is to offer understanding and solidarity in the interests of sisterhood. nobody is immune to socialization – not even you.

      you may also want to familiarize yourself with studies that show that social benefits are withheld from women who don’t conform to these social rules. here’s one of many: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/womens-high-heels-influence-male-behaviour-says-study-9913696.html

      i’m not sure why it’s confusing to you that something that you say is easy for you may be, for equally valid reasons, more difficult for others. for example: i find empathizing with others very simple – and your response suggests this may not be your strong suit.

    • Melanie

      I have a serious disease and did 6 months of very hash chemical treatment to try and get rid of it, which practically aged me overnight. The treatment was hard. Being sick is hard. So is the fact that people began to make comments about my looks because my hair thinned out and I got wrinkles and dull skin. My looks suddenly became an issue – solely because I’m female. Women are under immense pressure to look young, healthy and youthful. Yes, losing my looks and youthfulness is not as hard as having a disease and I know that my looks are not important in the scheme of things. But it’s also hard to deal with the added pressure, comments and subtle criticisms that people think that they can make simply because I’m female and my role apparently is to look good. It doesn’t make me shallow or spineless to be impacted by that pressure. Women are not the problem here.

  • Great article, thank you! It’s amazing how compulsory it is for women to engage in beauty rituals. That statistic of 55 minutes a day on hair and makeup is sad, but sounds accurate. All of my female coworkers come to work each day with their hair and makeup done. They talk about it sometimes and it seems like they don’t think they have any choice and I can definitely hear the attitude that they don’t want to let themselves go, even if they don’t state it in those words. I don’t wear makeup or style my hair, I just wash it and brush it into place. I do notice that I appear less “attractive” than my coworkers, according to the standards our culture sets for women. But I carry on because it’s important to me that I do not attach any importance on women’s appearance. It shouldn’t matter either way.

  • Nun Ninja

    It’s amazing to see women acting holier than thou about other women struggling with patriarchy. It’s a bombardment from both sides, by women who think they’ve escaped and are therefore smarter, better than the ‘spineless’, ‘shallow’ women who are still mired in patriarchy. It’s that old patriarchal lie that some women inadvertently buy into, “I’m not like those other girls”.

    Thank you for this compassionate article. It’s nice to read something that doesn’t bash women and only explains and expounds on the ills of beauty mandates. I do none of that myself, being celibate and a misanthropic crotchety old spinster but that certainly doesn’t make me better than women who still subscribe to beauty mandates.

    • jindi

      thank you for your support. i agree that patriarchy (and neo-liberalism) divide us to conquer us and am always saddened when women play along.

    • will

      I really have not witnessed what you describe. Who and where do women express the idea that they are “better”, as you say, than women who conform to beauty standards or call those women “spineless” of “shallow”?

      On the other hand, I do see a bombardment of shaming and ostracization of women who don’t conform. The last time I turned on a TV (about a year ago) there was a reality show out of Toronto that took women into a room where a jury of people criticized the woman’s looks and then a “team” swept in and “fixed” the perfectly-fine, lovely, normal woman and made her look indiscernible from the most conventional people – at huge expense of the woman’s time and money were she to keep up the charade.

      Just out of curiosity – do you think that is possible for a woman to actually be shallow or to be cowardly? Do you think that because we have to navigate the pernicious pressures of patriarchy that this absolves us of all responsibility for reproducing harmful pressures?

    • will

      Sorry – I did not read the comment below before I posted my reply. I am still getting used to the new comments format.

      That said, I can see where saying (quoting ptittle), “if you pay any attention to the media, music videos, Hollywood, and random men on the street, with respect to how to live your life, you are shallow” is contentious.

      However, I do think that in consuming music videos, Hollywood fare and looking for approval from random men on the street, one runs the risk of becoming shallow – i.e. filling your head with a tonne of toxic ideas that undermine critical thought, even if it does not have the required affect of driving you to spend precious hours of your life and too much of your already paltry income on the false promises of the so-called “beauty” industry. In the same way that watching porn, even critically, can really mess with your sexuality.

  • TheArtistFormerlyKnownAsYoya

    I used to work out a lot. It wasn’t for health, it was to look good. At some point I began to associate this with being insecure, as I knew for myself it came from a fear of not being loved if I was not attractive. Now, though I hate to admit it, I look at women who obviously put in a lot of time at the gym as being insecure and fearing they won’t be loved. I admit I have looked down on them. Maybe it’s not true for them but it was for me. But I find now I’m also not happy with NOT conforming to society’s demands that I maintain my figure. I feel like I’m damned either way. At some point I’ve become invisible due to my weight. This can be freeing but also worrying. It is a struggle for every one of us and we are all at different states of succumbing to the pressure to look good.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Sure, but honestly, I really don’t see exfoliating and moisturizing as the worst things. I’m not talking spending thousands of dollars on lazer treatments or botox, here… Moisturizer hardly stops the aging process, anyway.

  • ptittle

    Perhaps you are. Brave and iron-spined to have raised to feminists in this day and age!

  • jindi

    thank you! so far it’s been enjoyable and challenging, maybe because i’m doing this later in life. i’m 37 – that’s a lot of years being validated for trying to conform and absorbing harmful messages about the basis of my self-worth.

    i can relate to those twinges of wistful envy – and think it’s important to validate why they make sense. i’m glad the transition hasn’t been too challenging for you and appreciate you sharing your experience.

  • jindi

    i couldn’t agree with you more. if we play by patriarchy’s rules we can’t win – and that’s no accident! it’s disgusting how women are judged for playing by rules they get punished for not following. feminism and sisterhood is the only way we can win.

  • jindi

    i’m sorry that happened to you and hope you’ve found health and happiness.

    i can trace my struggles with body image back to childhood trauma – i learned i was worthless and taking it out on my body fit with the misplaced sense of blame i directed at myself. i don’t want to contemplate the value set that accompanies characterizing this behaviour as shallow.

  • Bronwyn Williams

    I’m 62 and my sister is 60. We came into young womanhood in the late 1960s, early 1970s and we both embraced the women’s liberation movement. Neither of us has ever been adept at using makeup, or styling our hair, and we’ve never considered cosmetic procedures. Our mother – a post-war wife and mother – never left the house without ‘putting her face on’ – she still doesn’t – and my niece (my sister’s child – I only have sons) is exactly the same. She spends hours on a weekly basis perfecting her public presentation – hair colouring, hair straightening, loads of makeup covering her perfect skin, THREE types of mascara to get just the right look, etc. She’s a primary school teacher, so the need to impress ‘clients’ and co-workers isn’t all that obvious.

    I puzzles me greatly that only one modern generation of women seems to have partly escaped the pressure to look young and perfect. I’m still trying to work out how men reclaimed the power to bend women to their vision of female attractiveness. Because, let’s be realistic – all that primping and painting is expensive, and time-consuming and possibly dangerous to a woman’s health, depending on how far she’s prepared to go. Not to mention the underlying element of competition between women to be, and stay, alluring to men.

    And the hardest part is seeing women of my generation, who once embraced the freedom to live unadorned lives, falling into line with the post-modern obsession with youth and beauty – think Jane Fonda, for example.

    I fully understand the social pressures on women to conform to a certain standard of presentation, but who ultimately sets that standard? Since it’s much easier, and less stressful to just be clean and healthy, I suspect it might be those people (men) who only need 15 minutes a day to look perfectly acceptable. When you need at least four times that to look ‘good enough’, you’re already behind the game.

    And that’s where they want us to be.

    • genny

      The funny thing is I used to wear wigs. I was a libfem and convinced myself I was doing my part for feminism by just throwing on a wig instead of spending an hour on my hair. Hey, I could sleep in!! Now, as a radfem, i have to shake my head at that way of thinking. Whether i was spending hundreds of dollars on wigs or getting my hair styled at the salon or spending an hour doing it up myself i was STILL wasting time, money, and energy performing for the male gaze. Today, I’m happy with my graying hair that i wash once a week and keep piled up in a clip on top of my head.

  • Melanie

    I’ve had Hepatitis C for almost 30 years. Over the years I’ve told several people that I have the disease and lived to regret it due to the stigma and judgement that they dished out on me. I no longer tell people I have the disease unless they absolutely have to know for their own health and safety. This is not because I’m spineless. It’s because of the the judgement and stigma. I don’t need it. That’s my point really. I’m not spineless for responding the best way that I can to the social stigma of my disease. And I’m not spineless for responding to the immense social pressure to look good as a female. I do what I do. Sometimes I say fuck you, sometimes I don’t. I don’t want a standing ovation for it, I don’t want to score brownie points over other women because i don’t shave my legs or pluck my eyebrows. I just want to be left alone and for it to stop being something that girls and women have to deal with in the first place.

    Anyway, I’m very sorry for what you went through too and I’m glad that you’re well now.

    • ptittle

      Sorry, I didn’t mean to mislead; it was prophylactic surgery, stage zero. I was extremely lucky.

      • Melanie

        That must have been very traumatic regardless. I’m glad that you’re well now.

  • Nun Ninja

    My apologies for calling you privileged. It still doesn’t excuse your looking down on other women, calling them shallow and spineless, for having to keep up with beauty mandates.

  • Nun Ninja

    They are not playing along with the patriarchy. They are made to conform because to do otherwise means detrimental things will happen to them. Those of us who have “let go”, though we still face tons of problems for rejecting femininity, still have the ability to carry on that way and survive. There are women who can’t and it doesn’t mean they are shallow or spineless. Sure, women have the choice not to but she will be going against a lot of social conditioning.

    You are Canadian, different societal rules, different expectations. Many more other women of different races and social classes even in Canada and north America, not to mention in different countries who have to present respectable by looking like the dominant racial group’s idea of respectability or conform to what their strict societal standards are. Many can’t just break out and have the ability to live as they like. Just have some compassion.

  • Nun Ninja

    I’m not sure if this might be helpful, but maybe you could look at working out as a way for your body to move, see the limits of your abilities and so on. Rather than just for a general idea of health. But you’re both absolutely right about the struggle, it’s part of the whole breaking away from the conditioning and expectations. I wish you all the best. I find doing something I like, that challenges my abilities each day took away a lot of those things.

  • cynicalleftist

    Thank you for sharing your story. It always helps to know where people are coming from.

    I can relate to much of what you said. As a pre-teen/teen, I was also not into fashion, didn’t wear make-up, was a “nerd,” and called a lesbian (as an insult). I never talked about hair or make-up with other girls. Yet I also developed severe anorexia. I can see how easy it is for people looking in from the outside to dub girls and women with eating disorders as vain or self-observed, but the reasons for an ED are far, far more complex (as you know).

  • cynicalleftist

    I’m glad you were able to stop plucking your eyebrows. But I don’t think it’s helpful to call women “idiots,” including to ourselves.

    I have never plucked my eyebrows. But some of us are a lot more sensitive than others. I know I deeply care what others think about me, and people do judge on appearances. For example, I have very think, black hair. I was teased mercilessly by other girls for not shaving when I was young. If I didn’t shave, it would be very, very noticeable–I would look like an ape. I could tell myself, “Don’t be such an idiot! Have the courage to stop that shit!” but I know were I not to shave I would be unable to deal with the real-world consequences of that. I just care way too much what others think.

    Do I think it’s right that women have to shave our legs, while men don’t? No. But I also want to move in the current world comfortably.

    You sound like a person who doesn’t give a crap what other people think, which is awesome! Please realize we all have different sensitivities and that for some of us, it would be unbearable to go through life without being at least somewhat presentable, even though those presentable standards are often male-made.

    • ptittle

      Well, I call a lot of people idiots. I think Beyonce is an idiot. I think Miley Cyrus is an idiot. I think anyone who thinks either one of them is a feminist an idiot.

      And yes, I think most women who perform femininity are idiots. They’re trading short-term personal comfort for long-term collective subordination.

      I except women who absolutely HAVE to do it to keep their jobs, but (a) I would encourage them to contact their union rep and/or MP and/or MPP to see if it’s legal, and (b) I would encourage them to experiment and find out the minimum. For example, if I hadn’t been fired first, I would’ve tried trading my Levi jeans for my Lee linen pants, my grey sweatshirt for a turquoise one with a bit of embroidery a friend was willing to lend to me, and my track shoes for a pair of loafers.

      What we need instead of SlutWalk is a Fuck Femininity Walk, wherein everywoman just dresses comfortably and not at all for the male gaze.

  • ptittle

    Meant to edit my comment to include mention of the magazines/newspapers broadside and off our backs.

    AND to change “to a large extent” to “to some extent” !!

  • Tired feminist

    I didn’t tell you to shut up. I told you that what you said is not feminist.

  • tinfoil hattie

    This is so infuriating! I hope the drug can be made available to you SOON, and that you are part of the 94%. Those are great odds. I hope you’ll keep us posted.

    • Melanie

      Yes, it is infuriating and very frustrating. There’s a lot of activism going on in Australia to get the drugs funded as soon as possible, for everybody, not just those who have more advanced disease. It makes sense economically in the long term and it’s just the right and ethical thing to do. The drugs are expensive but they’re a huge step forward in treating this disease compared to the older treatments, which are a lot less effective and just awful as far as side effects. http://www.hepatitisaustralia.com/

      Anyway, I will keep you posted. It’ll be very surreal to be cured of this disease. I’ve had it since I was 17 years old. I’ll be so elated if I’m cured I’ll have to tell someone! Only a couple of people in my life even know that I’m sick. Thanks again for your thoughts. And sorry to go off topic …

  • Tired feminist

    But it doesn’t automatically make any criticism of anti-feminism feminist. For something to be feminist it has to work towards liberation of women as a class. That is, all women. Telling a woman to ‘grow a spine’ against oppressive beauty norms might, if anything, empower her as an individual (when it doesn’t make her feel worse – look, on the top of all our flaws you’re also shallow and spineless! Your concerns are futile! Stop whining so much!). But it’s not liberating to women as a class, as it places on the shoulders of individuals the responsibility for their own liberation from an oppression that is actually much bigger than themselves and that needs collective action to be destroyed. I don’t mean it’s necessarily useless, I mean it’s not a political statement.

    • ptittle

      Individuals make up the collective. Can’t one advocate _both_ individual _and_ collective action? Isn’t collective action more likely to happen if individuals get the ball rolling, so to speak?

  • Sally

    I agree. I also don’t think that women are necessarily “shallow” for internalizing these often very subtle messages. I think probably most women who wear makeup just put it on thinking of it more as an “essential” type of thing, like showering or brushing one’s teeth. They’ve just been told its “what you do just because.” I would say the shallow women are the ones who consciously believe they are somehow better than other women based on the fact that they look better by patriarchy’s standards. Probably everyone is shallow to a degree, but I don’t think internalizing beauty standards necessarily makes one shallow. We’re all socialized to just accept that certain things are the “natural order of the world.” Many aren’t taught to think critically enough to question it. i would say that’s moreso a product of ignorance.

  • Sally

    I agree, this type of response is definitely a product of libertarianism and Ayn Rand type philosophy of individualism. “If you can’t deal with it, that’s your problem” doesn’t challenge anything. It’s not being an ally. It’s touting your own ability to be “better” rather than communing with other women.

  • Sally

    You can try challenging on an individual level and maybe demand dropping will pressure some companies and corporations to stop selling a certain type of product or stop showing a certain commercial or ad in a magazine, but ultimately thats not actually challenging capitalism or patriarchy. Where one demand decreases, another demand materializes because its the economic system itself that is the problem and that can’t really be challenged sufficiently on an individual level. They’ll find ten new things tomorrow to make us feel bad about. Meager gains might be made, but the torrent of capitalism’s expectations will always outweight what a few women are doing, which is why women as a whole need to challenge capitalism and patriarchy as a whole, basically utterly tear them down and destroy them. You can pull one weed at a time, but ten more will probably pop up in its place. We need to completely burn the shit down until there is not a single sign of oppression left, not even a seed. That takes solidarity with women and understanding. I can stop plucking tomorrow, but no company will be harmed by that ultimately. The pressure from society will be far greater than any impact I might make by stopping all beauty practices. It surrounds us, day in, day out. What will be harmed when we destroy capitalism? patriarchy. What will be harmed when we destroy patriarchy? men’s objectification of women. the two are connected and it will take a global movement of feminism. Mary Kay could go out of business tomorrow, but capitalism will still exist and so will patriarchy and they won’t even limp away. It’ll be a toe-stub or a pin-prick at most.

  • Alex

    I will always remember my Sheila Jeffreys as my lecturer saying that the average women spends 3 years of her life attending to her appearance, in terms of putting on makeup, hair curling, etc, and she said that she could have done something useful with those three years like become fluent in Korean! Three years is a whole university degree. It shocked me, and I don’t wear makeup or shave my legs anymore.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Beauty & Misogyny changed my life.

  • genny

    Terrific article! I found radfem about six months ago, and for the first time in my nearly 50 years, finally feel free. Free to not obsess about my weight, free to not wear a bra, free to trade in my pretty wigs for my naturally graying hair, free to not wear makeup, free to not shave anything, and free to not give a flying fuck about catering to the male gaze anymore.

  • genny

    I agree. Even though i officially “let myself go” about six months ago, after having just canceled my cable, i feel even better now that i’m not being assaulted literally every two minutes by weight loss commercials that feature only women, not to mention Oprah and her weight watchers ads, wherein, even as a billionaire, the woman still cannot get over her obsession with weight. That’s patriarchy right there.