I’m about to admit something that, in patriarchy, is tantamount to a cardinal sin: I’m letting myself go.
Letting myself go. I choose that phrase intentionally – a phrase designed to strike fear in women and motivate resolute anti-aging regimes, ruthless food restrictions and, if we’re too far gone, a few nips and tucks. A short yet powerful phrase, “letting herself go” evokes shame, excuses and apologies about how embarrassed we are that, as women, we can’t defy the impacts of time. A phrase that reveals so much about where we’re supposed to focus our time, attention and resources.
I’ve spent the last year re-engaging with feminism. Not air-quote “feminism” that reframes mechanisms of oppression as empowering choices to avoid analyzing who these choices benefit and who they oppress. Actual feminism, the kind that recognizes women as a political class and sees the obsession we’re supposed to have with beauty as another tool used to control us – a learned compulsion that needs to be questioned, challenged and rejected as we continue our fight for liberation. So, despite a lifetime of conditioning, I’m rejecting my fear-based impulses to shave, wax, conceal, powder, buff, polish, moisturize, tone, shrink, augment, exfoliate, pluck, primp and gloss.
Yet if a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she might have got? If she never takes off her high-heeled shoes, how will she ever know how far she could walk or how fast she could run? – Germaine Greer
In patriarchy, there is no nobler aspiration for a woman than to be beautiful, a particular type of beautiful, a type defined by men to benefit men, Beauty is taut and hairless, thin but not too thin. Beauty is buxom. Beauty is white. And, while men can be considered more attractive as they age, for women beauty is almost exclusively young.
Writing for Feminist Current, Alicen Grey astutely analyzed patriarchy’s obsession with youth as the foundation of female beauty, wrapping the many problematic aspects in a disturbing yet completely accurate phrase: “pedophile culture”. It’s no accident that in patriarchy, where men are socialized to dominate and women are conditioned to accept domination, aspirational female beauty is best represented by girls – females at their least powerful.
The power beauty holds over women is undeniable. On average, women spend 55 minutes a day attending to our hair and makeup. 90% of people who suffer from anorexia or bulimia are female. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the number of cosmetic procedures in the US increased 429% from 1997 to 2014 [PDF]. In 2014, women accounted for 90% of those procedures, 9.6 million in all.
Women don’t do this because we’re shallow. We do this because, from the moment we’re born, we’re bombarded with messages from family, friends, the media, music videos, Hollywood, random men on the street and from one another that being considered beautiful is what we’re supposed to do – that this is what being a woman means. A closer look at the phrase “letting herself go” reveals how central appearance is to womanhood. In that phrase her attempt to conform to beauty standards is “herself”. It’s all of her.
In patriarchy, women are judged negatively not only for not being beautiful, but also for showing any signs of the enormous effort required to conform to an impossibly narrow beauty standard. We must not only be young and fresh looking all the time, we must be naturally and effortlessly young and fresh – and those of who aren’t are derided as superficial or high-maintenance.
The game is rigged against us. The game is designed to control us and I, along with many other women, many more courageous than me, refuse to play.
I’m nowhere near the first feminist to challenge or reject patriarchy’s oppressive beauty standards. Many women before me have refused to play along and, as a result, have become invisible, less worthy, less than. I draw on their courage as I continue to focus on all the other pieces of myself that have nothing to do with my appearance – as I continue letting myself go. Won’t you come with me?