The myth is that women perform their beauty rituals in order to please men, that they are oppressed in so doing, and that men will not accept them in a more ‘natural’ or less altered and adorned state.
I think the reality is far different. Here’s why:
- The idea that men expect women to groom and alter their bodies in particular ways rests on the false premise that all men want the same thing, and therefore that there is a clear goal for women to achieve: remove all body hair, starve yourself to become thin, grow your hair long and bleach it blond, and wear lots of makeup. Men are disparate; they don’t all find the same things attractive. There is therefore no stratghtforward beauty ideal for women to attain if they are trying to please men, because don’t or can’t know what particular men find attractive.
- There is little evidence that men actually find the things that women commonly do to their bodies attractive. Many men, for example, are horrified at the idea of breast implants. I hate the perpetually startled (and stupid) facial expression created by excessive eyebrow plucking. And I don’t care if my partner has done her bikini line or not; it doesn’t make her any more or less attractive. When I want to go to the beach, I go. If my partner complains that she can’t go because she hasn’t done her bikini line, she can sit at home and stew while I go to the beach alone and enjoy myself. Perhaps she can choose to wear less revealing (and more comfortable) clothing.
- The extent of women’s beauty behaviour appears to many men to be a form of irrational obsessive compulsive behaviour and self mutilation, which a symptom of mental illness. Men may not be as emotionally sophisticated as women but we can spot loony girls very quickly. If you have more shoes than CDs, that’s a problem. If I can’t see the bathroom counter because it’s completely convered in product, that’s a problem. If you take so long to get ready before we go out that I come to resent you, that’s a problem for me. If you spend all your money on clothes and handbags but then have no money to go on holiday, you get left behind. Why should men pay for you?
It is impossible to have this discussion without referencing stereotypes and using generalisations. Assume that men and women are equally insecure and emotionally fragile. How they deal with this is where they differ. One of the major generalisations is that men tend to externalise their emotional responses, while women internalise them.
Thus, men drink too much, get into fights, drive too fast and have car crashes. They use their emotionally instability against other people. Women tend to develop eating disorders, engage in self harm like cutting themselves, and make irrational purchases. They inflict their emotional instability on themselves. In suicide, men tend to choose violent means, such as guns. Women tend to choose nonviolent means, such as drug overdoses.
When women choose to suffer for beauty it is to compete against other women for status, not the attention of men. I think the feminist theorists like Sheila Jeffreys who endlessly blame men for the state of beauty politics are refusing to accept that women have power and agency in relation to their bodies. Women make choices. Some choose to engage in irrational, self-destructive beauty rituals. Men don’t make them do this. Equally, men cannot stop them. As a man, I don’t want to be unfairly blamed for these circumstances.