Lifestyle 03 December 2019
"You look tired."
If you're anything like me (and literally every other woman I know), those words are anything but innocuous. They're a reminder that you aren't wearing makeup – and being judged for it. It's like clockwork to the point that it'd be funny if it weren't so infuriating, but the fact is that women are expected to adhere to a very narrow standard for our appearances to even be considered presentable in public. It's not a secret, and it's not a scandal. It is, instead, the basic expectation of all women before being taken seriously and respected. And that is, let's not mince words, abuse.
A few weeks ago, there was a minor flap in the news cycle about an informal ban on women wearing flats or glasses to work in Japan. Everyone was so breathlessly offended, and rightly so, but the truth is that isn't even remotely unique to Japan. Our appearances are policed all over the world, from strict religious mandates for "modesty" at one end of the spectrum to under eye concealer at the other. This isn't to equate these realities, or to deny that there aren't women who find liberation in both – there are undoubtedly many women empowered by making these choices for themselves – because the problem isn't how we present ourselves of our own volition, but what we are obliged or outright required to do.
Which brings me back to "you look tired." Because there's a lot going on there! First is the simple fact that many, many a man is so unaccustomed to seeing a woman without a coat of paint on that he doesn't realize that women don't all have perfect skin, and that any imperfection must be an indication of a problem. Dark bags under your eyes? Must not be sleeping. Are you sick? You must be sick. Or you must not take care of yourself. Or you must not care about your appearance. Or you're a lesbian. Or you're just not trying.
Glasses make us look "mannish," or "unsexy," or even "intimidating," which usually is just a euphemism for too smart.
None of this is news to any of us. Generations of men who grew up on air-brushed, pinned-up, painted-over, half-starved supermodels from Marilyn to Cindy have basic expectations of what a woman is supposed to be that are then imposed over us to our detriment. The informal ban on flats and glasses in Japan may have gotten attention, but it isn't even a particularly stark example; we have all faced the threat of censure for failing to live up to someone else's fantasies.
But damned if you do and damned if you don't, there's the ever-present threat of being punished for trying to do exactly that. Wear too much makeup? Dress too "feminine." You're "asking for it." You're "distracting." You're "unprofessional" and don't want to be taken seriously. The line we have to walk is impossibly thin. Punished for being too sexy, punished for not being sexy enough – the threat is ever-present. So what is there to be done? The connection between appearance and respect is undeniable and must be navigated.
And it's not even just men, although they are themselves the primary beneficiaries; we police each other, and it mostly isn't even conscious. We have internalized these standards, applying them to other women as much as ourselves. "You can't pull that off." "Your makeup is slutty." "She just dresses like that so the boss will pay attention to her." It's ridiculous, but we do it all the same, staunchly defending double standards that hurt us all. I've done it. You've done it. We've all done it. That silent, judgy glare, the back-office gossip, and pointed and whispered accusations. We do it to ourselves.
And the guys? Guys can roll out of bed, run their fingers through their hair, and everyone's happy if they managed to throw on a pair of pants and some ratty sneakers. Even "making an effort" has a different definition; a powder-blue buttonup and some khakis are really all anyone is asking of them, and sometimes they can't even be bothered to go that far. While a sharp-dresser is always gonna be an eye-turner – and let me tell you, I've seen some guys who can wear the hell out of a great suit – that's considered exceptional and noteworthy. A guy with mussy top is never going to be asked if it's windy outside. They never need an excuse.
"You look tired."
Well, I am tired. Being a woman is exhausting. And nothing – not money or success or power – has changed that. Instead, it's been sorority, our willingness to speak to each other and publicly about the ways the informal rules hurt us; heels might "look professional," but they can really mess up your feet. So I'm not here to propose a solution as much as to issue a call to arms: it's okay to look tired. It's okay not to look perfect. And that's something we're obliged to communicate, not only to the men in our lives, but to each other.
This is the great gift of the social media era: it's connected more women than ever before, giving us a megaphone we've never had that can reach women we'd never otherwise meet. It has let an entire generation of women articulate and communicate shared oppressions, fueling commiseration, anger, and yes, change. That's how #MeToo happened. Even before lifting each other up comes the basic work of validating feelings about our lives we've always been expected to tamp down.
I think this might be harder for women my age and older. We aren't as keyed into the digital conversations and have more time "going along to get along" under our belts. We've learned to survive in man's world and often to a degree have internalized its values about us and our bodies. But we should expect better, and I'm glad to see our daughters standing up for themselves. It's like Lysistrata, the classical Greek drama about women stopping a war by initiating a sex strike: things get better when we stick together.
Because it's either stick together or fall apart.
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Help! I'm Sick of Seasonal Weight Gain!
Dear Armchair Psychologist,
How would you deal with the seasonal weight gain that most women experience? I've put on literally 5–7 lbs around my waist/butt/lower thighs and it's the bane of my existence. Getting dressed hasn't even been fun lately:( I know it's "normal," but how do I battle the psychology behind this?
- McFattie in Brooklyn
Dear McFattie in Brooklyn,I'm sorry to hear that the winter blues is making your zipper hard to close. Personally, I roll with the rolls during the dark and frigid winter season, while chalking the glutton up to a basic survival mechanism. The feelings that accompany being out of shape and not wanting to dress cute (because your clothes don't fit well) can be both demoralizing and a blow to your self esteem. In this fantastic post, the author suggests great techniques that include keeping things in perspective and to "Ignore the panic," "Get curious" about your weight gain, and to keep it moving by "getting out of your room." Best of all is the advice to "Remember all things that are more important than this." If these head games don't serve you over time, and you still feel low, there may be deeper underlying reasons to your weight gain. In this case, I suggest you speak to a qualified therapist.
- The Armchair Psychologist