On the Care of the Body

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The other day, I was getting a manicure in an attempt to curb the Black Swan cuticle situation that tends to develop in times of stress: pay a professional to straighten things up and then try to leave them alone, pristine, non-ragged, not bleeding over the various pieces of paper that cross my desk. Everyone appreciates this effort.

If you’re not familiar with the mani ritual: once your nails are painted, your manicurist (never your girl: do you really call the woman who inhales nail polish fumes all day as she tends to the hands and feet of you and countless other women your “girl”…?) carries your bag to a corner of the salon where they have little stations with fans and what are probably really harmful lights, and leaves you there with other manicured women to dry and cure for a good 10 minutes. You sit there with your magazine, or you go with a friend and chit-chat, or you just stare into space—you kill the time, because the time must be killed until the polish is dry.

At a certain point in the longueurs of the drying stage, I checked my phone, and another woman asked me the time. When I told her, she gasped, and called for her manicurist, to be released from her dryer. She acted irritated with everyone, as though it was their fault that she was late. She was obviously a mani-pedi veteran (she had get-10-get-1-free stamp card), and I thought, how can she be surprised? how can she not know how long this process takes? A mani is at least 30 minutes with drying time. It’s a good hour to have feet and hands tended to (mani-pedi combo: $35, always a better deal to get them together).

And it occured to me—many women get pedi’s, what, twice a month? and mani’s twice a month or more. How much time out of our lives do we spend doing pretty much nothing while other women soak, pumice, trim, massage, lotion, and paint our finger- and toe-nails? And then, how much time do we spend getting our hair shampooed, cut, colored, blow-dried? touching up our roots? getting waxed? getting facials and botox and lasers and fillers? The alarming answer: a lot.  In addition to the jobs themselves–20 minutes here, an hour there, maybe 2 or 3 for something really big–there’s the time it takes to plan and shuffle obligations around to free up the grooming time, and the travel time to get to the place and consume an espresso while you wait. Then these events often constrain how we spend the time after: to preserve the blow-out, to let our nails dry completely, to remain upright and avoid exertion until the botulinum toxin has settled in. It’s a LOT of time.

Remind me again what it’s all for…?

Let’s say we spend anywhere from 6-10 hours/week performing various beauty-related work (that includes our daily at-home tasks of make-up, hair, etc). What are men doing with that time, that whole extra work-day? They might spend a bit of time and effort doing…what, beyond bathing? (seriously, we wouldn’t blame you at all—at all—if you spent a smidge more time on such things as nose hair, or ear hair, or back hair. Because: yuck). I asked Facebook, “what are the men doing with all the time that women spend tending to their bodies?” The answers (from an admittedly small sample)—they build cabinets, smoke cigars, go camping, read books, drink bourbon—all things which women like to do, too, but which have to be made to fit into a schedule already heavily committed to an expansive beauty regime. If a man builds a cabinet instead of getting a mani, will anyone notice? If a woman swaps out the rear cassette on her bike instead of coloring her hair, will anyone notice that? Men assure us they neither notice nor require us to go any great lengths on their behalf; they insist they don’t even know what mascara is; they get interested, then quickly confused, when we talk about blow outs… “You don’t see us getting manicures,” they scoff, manfully. “What silliness you girls put yourselves through!”

Right. And who’s buying vodka from hairless sex robots, and saying “oui” to plump-lipped airline models, and cologne we can’t stand, and lingerie we never actually want…? That would be the men, as mindlessly sold on the promises of models in their lipstick, and mascara, and blow-outs as we are. All the backstage, pre-show apparatus, all the smoke and mirrors and photoshop—enchants them as much as a 6 year old having breakfast with all of the Disney Princesses. Once the men are glamoured, if we showed up as our true selves, they’d recoil in horror as they would from Snow White’s evil stepmother once she transformed herself into a crone.

I’m convinced of it. Or I’ve been convinced of it. I’ve been glamoured just as much as all my sisters thronging Sephora on a Saturday afternoon. I take it for granted that I must adhere to this regime, or else.

But hang on now: or else what? In my state of single blessedness I’ve gone on dates with at least 50 men (I know), and while a couple have complimented me on my body—well, body parts—only two (that’s 4%) have ever said that I’m pretty. In a dating economy where we measure the success of our product by numbers of returns, exchanges, and positive or negative reviews, obviously, this product isn’t all that appealing in its current packaging. Maybe all the work I put in isn’t making any difference at all, and I should abandon the current marketing strategy and go for the distressed, antiqued effect instead.

“Oh please!” I can hear Oprah exclaiming on behalf of empowerment-minded women everywhere. “It doesn’t matter what your dates think, it only matters that you find yourself beautiful! You should never wear anything or do anything to your appearance for anyone’s gratification but your own! Reward yourself for the hard work of being a Strong Independent Woman, acknowledge that you’re doing all you can to Be Your Best Self—by treating yourself to some of my favorite things, like this $50 lipstick, or this $100 eye cream! You’re worth it!”

There’s that word “worth” again. It comes up a lot in the dating economy.

When you stop to calculate the investment many women make in their appearance, the cost in terms of time and money (and not a little psychic stress too)—no wonder women are under-represented in government and industry; no wonder many of us still expect men to buy dinner, as a way to compensate us for the pre-dinner expenditure we’ve made.

This is one of contemporary feminism’s great sticking points. We get confounded by the fact that nail polish, heels, and tight skirts are all simultaneously the misogynistic tools of our own oppression; somehow (we believe) essential for dating success; and also really pretty and sparkly.

This is what you call being complicit with the patriarchy.

Obviously, while we might use a fancy French word like régime to describe all of the time, money, and resources which go into the care of our bodies, the fact is, it’s a regimen, a form of bodily discipline. And as the French philosopher Foucault observed, you can assess a lot about a society by looking at the degree to which the various authorities expend their resources to discipline the people…or get the people so well trained and docile that they’ll discipline themselves on the authorities’ behalf. When it comes to the particular case of women, as various cultural critics have observed, if you keep them sufficiently diverted by elegant shoes and shiny lipgloss, and sufficiently distracted by an un-assuage-able fear that they’re never going to be young/thin/well-groomed enough to look pretty enough for…love? sex? acceptance? whatever? —if you can convince women that being constantly vigilant about their appearance is not just necessary, but FUN!…well, you never need to worry about them getting anything like equal power because they’re too busy sitting and staring into space while their nails dry, or reading trashy Hollywood magazines while their color processes.

(To be fair [?], according to Foucault’s theories about social power, no-one is truly free, neither women nor men. The latter are conned into submission as much as women are, just in different ways.)

Obviously there are plenty of women who don’t bother with all this palaver, who lead fulfilling lives filled with all the love they might need, or who might read this blog post with a certain amount of Foucauldian horror. “F*&% Oprah, and Vogue, and GQ, with their ridiculous brainwashing,” these enlightened women might say. “Do what you want. Be yourself. If the world doesn’t accept you because you stop plucking your eyebrows, then f%$@ the world too.”

So if a heterosexual woman took it upon herself to just stop, to go no further in maintaining her appearance, to present herself to the world with no more exertion or refinement than the average heterosexual man might choose—would she love herself more? If she cut out the polish, dye, wax, make-up, perfume, anti-aging serums etc etc etc—would she get a date? Am I missing some essential truth somehow by asking those questions back to back?

In my own case, I really don’t know the answers, because to find out requires an experiment I dare not try. I never leave the house without at least mascara or lipstick; I think my natural hair color was dark brown once, but I’m pretty sure it’s almost completely gray by now, and the world will never truly know because I’m hyper vigilant about touching up my roots. Who among us would drop every component of her regime and just go completely natural? There have been stunt-bloggers who’ve tried it; in exchange, they’ve ended up with media attention, and a rather unbecoming amount of smug self-righteousness, about how they’ve freed themselves from beauty tyranny, and their husbands and children love them all the more for it. Good for them, one thinks. And then one thinks: better them than me. They’re lucky they’re not single. There’s no way in hell I’d risk it.

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