When I was seventeen (exactly half a lifetime ago), I worked in the the Juniors’ Department of a major department store chain. One day, I wore a knee-length skirt. A coworker, also seventeen, and heavily made up, gasped in horror at my legs.
“You don’t shave?” she squealed.
“Nope,” I shrugged.
“Do you ever, you know…” she began, then faltered, working to formulate her question. “I mean, what do boys say? Do you ever get asked out, looking like that?”
Like that? I laughed. The truth was that I had a boyfriend, and I’d had several prior to that. I’d never had a problem with interest from the opposite sex. “Sure. I mean, yeah, I get asked out. If a boy doesn’t like my legs, why would I date him?”
Recently, a spate of op-eds and columns have addressed the implicit sexism that suffuses women’s appearance. This is not just a question of female insecurity: women today are not considered completely dressed until make up is applied and hair is neatly coiffed, a standard that is not applied to men. This article noted that the time lost constructing a well-dressed female form was, in itself, a penalty for being female. And this recent article in the New York Times hit home the notion that, as women continue to kowtow to today’s expectations of dress and appearance, they struggle to teach their daughters how not to value appearance over merit.
Nowadays, I do shave my legs. Originally, it was to please a few conservative family members at my wedding reception. Once I shaved (for the first time in six years), I realized that the tattoos on my legs looked nicer–realized that I myself liked looking at them more. I continued to shave, and still do, not because my partner likes it, or because I fret over my job security (usually I cover those tattoos anyway).
I shave for me.
Throughout my teens and twenties, though I didn’t eschew make up, I rarely wore it. I owned one tube of lipstick, which I trotted out perhaps a half-dozen times a year, and some tinted Chapstick, and a compact of translucent powder. For a short time, I wore mascara, but after a grain of sand lodged in my eye and had to be medically removed, I gave up decorating my eyes; black clumps clinging to my lashes only reminded me of the painful foreign object.
In my thirtieth year, I visited a specialized salon and had my waist-length hair knotted into dreadlocks. I’ve worn this hairstyle for nearly three years, and I spend about as much time on my appearance as my husband does on his; a few times a month, I twist my roots and otherwise neaten and tidy my hair. Most days, for work, teaching college composition classes, I sweep it back into a bun. I pat some translucent powder over my nose, forehead and cheeks, both to dim the shine that will build over the day and also to provide a bit of sunscreen. I dress conservatively, in comfortable skirts or pants, a plain shirt and a cardigan sweater (working in that department store taught me that fully dressed for work is three pieces, and I never fail to follow this rule… one which applies equally to men and women). I put on a set of comfortable 1/2 inch heels and am out the door.
Thing is, now that I’ve revealed to you that I didn’t shave, that I now have dreadlocks, that I reject make up, I will be labeled. Perhaps even now, the dreaded H-word lingers on your lips: hippie. But I remain unconvinced that any response other than outright rejection of an industry built on capitalization on female insecurities will win what women fear they continue to lose, what women fear they cannot teach their daughters–to value themselves for their abilities, for their heart–while trucking about makeup-ed and in four inch heels. Because those women–brilliant, intelligent, successful women–fear the backlash that rejecting the fashion industry might bring.
The problem with this logic, however, is that the whole debate, the whole farce of the feminist rant against make up and fashion, misses the point completely. Yes, it’s unfair that today, men do not have to concern themselves with their appearance as much as women do. But just as the mommy wars keep women battling one another, so does casting the problem of female preoccupation with image as one of feminism, as one of inequality between the sexes, miss the point.
The issue is, at its core, one of blind consumerism. Companies of all kinds prey upon consumers and highlight their supposed deficiencies in order to convince them of their need for products to alleviate said deficiencies. This kind of advertising thrives on competition, on the consumer’s competition with her peers. Underlying this competition is a fear: of looking bad, of being judged, of some terrible fallout sure to occur, should a successful woman suddenly be revealed as unpolished, average and normal, in a candid Instagram photo.
The fears only have power because women, collectively, validate them. If a woman rejects the implicit notion that she is somehow deficient, the need for the product–eyeliner, hair dye, cuticle lotion–disappears. The more women play into the fear of never looking their best, the more money companies make off of them. That collective insecurity dooms us all, yet insecurity is a choice. We can choose confidence instead. We can reject judgments, rather than whine about them. If a person has a problem with my appearance (beyond the basic modesty and hygiene required for the proper execution of my job), the problem is not mine. No, that issue lies with the person doing the judging, not the person being judged.
Let’s teach our daughters and sons that buying products and keeping up with the Jones’ will not bring happiness: not with make up, not with four-inch heels, not with new cars or bigger houses or bigger salaries or matched bedroom sets or coordinating separates. If a daughter will learn to value herself for what’s inside, she will learn it from her first, and most loving, teacher: her mother.
As for me, I will busy myself teaching the future husbands of those daughters, my sons, the true nature of beauty.