Riding in the car with my mother the other day, she remarked that I am judgmental of women who care a lot about their appearance. She told me that she wears makeup every day not because she feels she has to, but because it is fun. She explained that Botox and plastic surgery are things that can help women feel good about themselves. “Your graying hair is making you look older,” she said. Yeah, I know…
I also know that the more women dye their graying hair, the older I will look when I don’t. The more women rid themselves of wrinkles, the older I will look when I don’t. The more women starve themselves, the fatter I will look when I don’t.
This is the tragedy of the commons at work within the beauty and body image industries. Individual women acting independently, according to what they believe is in their own self-interest, are simultaneously behaving in a manner contrary to the common good of all women. As with certain other female behaviors, individual “empowerment” undermines collective liberation.
Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, wrote:
“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
I don’t judge women for acting in what they perceive to be their own best interest, but I do judge them for blind obedience. The crumbs of patriarchy are not worth fighting for, but a political, economic, and social reboot of our culture is. I admit that I like my Pacifica eyeliner from the health food store because it looks nice and doesn’t make my eyes itch. It’s a small capitulation on my part but we all decide what is reasonable and what is too much. So what is bugging me?
It’s that when it comes to beauty routines, one woman’s freedom to adorn herself becomes another woman’s perceived burden to do so, even though that is not the first woman’s intent. Even Hillary Clinton felt afflicted by the 600 hours she has had to spend on her appearance in 2016. (And astonished by her own math). I don’t judge women for wearing makeup, dyeing their hair, or in other ways trying to look prettier or younger for lovers or coworkers or the public (or “themselves,” if that is what they believe). I do, however, want every single woman to ponder how much time and money she spends on superficial matters while the world burns. It is burning.
Have we ever been in greater need of women turning their collective gaze away from their navels and toward their civic responsibility? When the female half of the population in the West is more focused on appearance, youthfulness, and self-improvement than the male half, are we fully invested in the most important aspects of self-determination? In our society, decisions are being made by men for women, about women, and in furtherance of women’s continued participation in their own discrimination.
Last weekend I was in Cambridge, MA, buying a new eyeliner pencil. While I was in the store, I noticed the wide selection of aromatherapy candles and diffusers. I saw a lot of yoga magazines and paraben-free moisturizers. The cosmetics counter where I stood looking at colour choices for my special eyeliner was chock full of cruelty-free and fragrance-free makeup options. There were also hairbrushes with boar bristles, health & wellness self-help books, and shelves full of other products that were organic, free trade, sustainable, locally sourced, and socially just. And I have no problem with any of it! In fact, I love to shop in a way that makes the world better — or perhaps I should say, less awful — when I can afford to.
But do you know what was interesting? How many more women were in that store than men. Maybe women are more into hygge than men this November, so the hand-knit scarves and lavender teas and cozy cat socks have more feminine appeal. I’m not very “domestic,” but I thought about buying a few dozen such products and applying them to myself as an anti-Trump balm while listening to some of the soothing new age relaxation CD’s I saw at the back of the store. Far be it from me to deny women whatever we need to get through an endless #MeToo loop on Facebook as every bad memory that is triggered reminds us of our second-class citizenship. I’m not that cruel.
I am aware the arguments I am making may be polarizing. Call me judgemental and point out my hypocrisy for wearing eyeliner. I also get keratin treatments to smooth my hair. What I’m suggesting, though, is that as women, we take a step back from the media messages and marketing onslaught and stores full of products that claim to make us better wives, sexier girlfriends, more nurturing caretakers, and tidier homemakers. Can we simply notice that the more we look inward, the less we look outward? A subtle shifting of focus — not wholesale abandonment of grooming and hygiene — could make a difference.
What could this mean for the U.S., in particular, at such a historically dangerous time?
Any baby steps that women can take to resist sexist consumerism frees up more of our time and money to resist the death of democracy. I know women “can do both at the same time,” but surely the current emphasis on whether or not our eyebrows are on fleek is both an unnecessary and possibly dangerous distraction.
My eyebrows are ordinary. Fuck the patriarchy.
Lori Day is an educational psychologist with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter and the President of the Board of Directors of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center. You can connect with Lori on Facebook or Twitter.