Amongst the various comments I receive on my gender-centric articles — aside from my personal favorites, “What a cunt” and “You just need to find a good man” — I am often told (with what I like to imagine are good intentions) that I should just stop caring what men think when it comes to dressing up. The idea, it seems, is that women are mostly keeping a man’s opinion in mind when they put on their makeup, style their hair, or wear an attractive outfit. And beyond all of the women who aren’t even interested in men sexually in the first place (or is dressing for another woman’s eye an equal sin?), few assertions about women’s inner workings could be further from the truth.
I recently addressed the idea that there is a firm reward system in place for women who put themselves together in a feminine, clean, well-styled way. And while there are certainly positives in terms of male sexual or romantic attention, the encouragement we face to look more “put together” extends far beyond how we are perceived in the dating market. Going to work with natural hair, a bare face, and simple clothes is often perceived as inherently unprofessional, and part of our preparation for the workplace includes transforming ourselves to fit a more strictly defined standard of beauty. Our voices are palpably dismissed or passed over when they are not accompanied by the kind of face that people are eager to look at, or the kind of style which is just the right level of palatably feminine.
There are clear pressures to be beautiful in a way that could easily be interpreted as catering to the male gaze, which actually have nothing to do with attracting a mate. Many of our beauty ideals were indeed formed in the interest of being sexually attractive, but now are deeply reinforced everywhere from strangers’ reactions on the street to opportunities at the workplace. Often, the act of “dressing up” for a woman is merely an act of assimilation and resignation to the idea that she has to do so to get ahead. She cannot go into a boardroom, or a meeting at her bank, or an open house to purchase some property unless she is looking aesthetically pleasing in just the right way. Many of them would choose to be far more natural if they had the option, but they know that the way they are perceived hinges enormously on how much effort they put into their appearance.
Of course, there are also women who, like myself, simply enjoy getting dolled up. I rarely leave the house without styled hair, a little strategic makeup, and a relatively coordinated outfit. However, I work at home, I rarely have important meetings that require looking a certain way, and I am not in the market for finding a date. (Hate to disappoint you, sexist commenters, but my beliefs about my gender have nothing to do with the boyfriend I’ve had for years now. I am not simply waiting for that one good penis to convert me from all of my whiny, dick-needing ideas.) I would likely face no immediate repercussions from being more casual. And no matter how many partners have told me that they are either completely neutral about how dressed-up I am, or even prefer me more natural, I will never give up on wanting to look like a Pretty Pretty Princess just for myself.
Why do I do it? Why put in the effort if it’s not going to immediately benefit me in some tangible way? Because it makes me feel fucking awesome! I literally feel like a Princess, and enjoy it just as much as I did when I was a little girl putting on my mom’s dresses and lipstick and bouncing on her bed in front of the mirror. I like experimenting with different looks, trying new things, and making myself feel like a new person with a few simple changes of style. It’s fun, and a great way to express myself. Sure, it’s nice hearing people compliment me on something, but I still feel just as good about it even when I don’t run into anyone. I sometimes get dressed up when I’m staying home — it’s raining out, and I’m feeling kind of down, why not put a fun outfit together as a quick pick-me-up?
And that might be what is most threatening of all in all of this. Whether it is the woman who gets dressed nicely to go out because she knows that her career options might be hindered if she were perceived as “less professional,” or it’s the woman who puts on beautiful clothes and makeup simply because it makes her feel good about herself, none of this has to do with what a man thinks about her body. It is so much more simple to say, “Stop caring what a man thinks, ladies, you’re beautiful as you are,” than to address all of the myriad reasons why that likely doesn’t apply to her. It allows you to still wield that important role of “Telling a woman what to do with herself because you assume to know the reasoning behind her actions,” and allows you to feel like a savior without actually having to address any of the real societal structures that are causing the problem in the first place.
Assuming that a woman is fretting over a man when she gets dressed in the morning is condescending at best, dangerously sexist at worst. And it ascribes a huge part of her autonomy to the passing interest of an imaginary man that she likely doesn’t care about in the least. But it’s easy to do, because it perpetuates the perception of us as flighty, desperate girls who are simply breathless over a man’s approval on her appearance. To accept the idea that makeup might never have been about a man in the first place — that means you actually have to address femininity as something owned wholly by the woman herself, and that is far more unpleasantly complicated.