I was friendless in a new country where I didn’t speak the language, and a charming young lady, the first person my own age that I’d met, had invited me to her beautiful apartment for a “girl’s night in”–an evening of facials, massages, depilation, nail painting, chocolate cake, pink wine, and Britney Spears.
She offered to wax my legs.
When I was younger, my cousins and I played a game: turn on the gas stove, stick your hand in the flame, see who could hold it there longest. I often won at this rather sick little contest, and at mercy–I’m good at enduring pain when when athanaton kleos is on the line.
Here, the incentive was less self-aggrandizing: my host was so eager to initiate me into this grooming ritual, so willing to accelerate our intimacy by means of bodily contact, and for my part, I wanted to become one of the girls. I wanted friends.
I let her wax my legs. It hurt, and produced angry little red bumps all up my calf that continued to itch for the rest of the night.
It’s an old trope that women don’t dress for men, they dress for other women. That may be true of clothing, but it’s both true and not true of makeup and grooming.
The blush and the bronzer and the eyeshadow are fundamentally about making us more attractive, and pretending that they’re all about self-esteem! and real beauty! and unlocking your true self! is how marketing campaigns convince us to buy way more attractiveness-crap than we need while vaporizing the self esteem built on anything more substantial than a handful of blush.
And for women, being attractive often means being Woman–flawless, untouched by the signs of mortal decay, smooth like marble all over the body. Woman is not a collective–a collective, though more than the sum of its parts, implies parts, and Woman is without gap or jointure–she is a unique, really unique, individual, and becoming her is our athanaton kleos.
I wanted to be initiated into a particular group of friends, but the structure of my initiation was subsumed by the attempt to be Woman: to collect around ourselves the fetish objects and observe the rites. How much closer a coat of nail varnish moved any of us to the deathless one was unimportant; we were Womaning
Often our critiques of particularly gendered practices revolve around inchoate accusations of objectification or social construction. There’s some red line that too-unashamed attempts to be sexually attractive cross, or some way in which the arbitrary is automatically rendered evil. In the muddle, I think we miss the salient point.
Being a woman is inextricable from work and pain. Not the work and pain detailed by umpteen coming of age stories, in which the hero finds his place in the community and discovers unknown resources of courage and strength, but simply this: in the mainstream of our culture, a normal female body demands ardurous cultivation. .
The female body is set up, not as given, fundamental, potent, without need of explanation, but as a planet that revolves around the sun of maleness. The female is a facade that must be deliberately maintained, lest the curtain rise on her natural state as a malfunctioning male. Woman is an ad-hoc apology for failure of maleness: if she cannot be great, she can perhaps at least be beautiful.
Girls also learn, early on, that work is immovably entrenched in the concept of woman, and this is why those little pink play-ovens and lip glosses for tots are so damaging. Girly leisure is often not truly leisure–it is essentially metabolic personal care, work sweetened by a glass of pinot grigio.
Lots of feminists want to talk about toxic masculinity, masculinity legitimized by aggression and domination, and rightly so. But we also need to discuss femininity in a way that avoids suggesting that a feminine persona is inherently degrading and identifies the real problem–the identification of womanliness with labor.
Of course, many believe that labor-power is woman’s defining characteristic, or are at least willing to build social mores around that assumption. When I saw this survey, I was reminded of a culture warrior’s lament that young people today just don’t know how to have good clean fun. Boys don’t know how to organize their own games anymore, he said, and girls don’t know how to throw dances and parties.
Presumably, the girls would be throwing these socials (and hosting is often very hard work indeed) for the benefit of their entire social circle; the boy’s games seem to exist for the boys’ enjoyment alone. It’s a telling distinction of social roles, and one perhaps confirmed by Pinterest’s overwhelmingly female membership.
Any individual woman’s adoption of any given marker of femininity is liable to stem from a complex of reasons that move far beyond loving/hating/objectifying her body/self. If we stop debating whether this or that purchase or this or that marketing campaign is feminist, if we change our focus from individual practices to the validating function of the whole marshalled cohort of creams and waxes and mousses, we can attack the the social notion of female identity legitimized by labor in all of its pernicious forms.
I’d like my female friendships to be based in something more than shared devotion to the cult of Woman, but the very least, I hope we can reduce the number of purely ritual depilations. I’m pretty sure they hurt more than the other kind.
PS–A question for men: is there any way in which personal curation is seen as something central to your manliness? Sports have the immediate function of the pleasures of a game, and body-building seems a) more optional, and b) seen as an actual chore. But I know there could easily be things I’m missing