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Why Can’t We Leave Women Alone?

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Morning telly; the land that time forgot.  I won’t go into the whys and wherefores of how I ended up watching it the other day, but let’s just say I was feeling a bit ‘delicate’.    Anyway, there I am, second bowl of cheerios in hand when a victim woman is herded out, wearing a brown towel on her head and something resembling a monk’s robe to save her modesty.  Stood between two well-dressed (and probably well-meaning) women – one, the presenter and the other a stylist, the grilling begins.  It turns out they are all discussing the state of her wardrobe since having kids.  They ask her when was the last time she ‘spoiled’ herself with a shopping trip?  How often she changes her hairstyle and if she’d like to wear more make up.  They show a still of her in her ‘normal gear’, which, to the woman’s shame, is a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers.  (No makeup – for shame!).

As I’m sitting there, wondering if my cheerios have been laced with some sort of time-travel agent and I’m now in the 50’s, they go on to chat about the woman’s job as a paramedic – which is good because she can wear a uniform to work.  I’m not sure they’d trust her to pick out her own work clothes.  The stylist kindly fibs that the woman’s wardrobe isn’t THAT bad, it’s just lacking in colour.  Why so many darks?  We can only wonder – but it’s clearly not a good thing.  The stylist goes on to tell the frumpy saddo  woman that she would ‘feel better in herself’ if she wore more yellows and reds.  ‘More people will gravitate towards you,’ she promised.  *Note to self: never wear red or yellow.

As the piece wore on, I found myself asking my empty living room, ‘Is everyone else seeing what I’m seeing?’  The silence was deafening, but my inner thoughts were loud – IMAGINE IF THIS WAS A MAN.  Imagine a man standing there, apologetic for his lack of sartorial genius and handing himself over to these ‘experts’ to make him beautiful again and more acceptable to the world at large.  Because, you know, Dads can really let themselves go when all their focus is on their kids and their busy lives.  Do men even have time to try out the latest make-up styles?  Although by now they should have mastered the feline flick, because that never goes out of fashion and always looks sexy.

Obviously, I’m poking a bit of fun.  There are men and women out there who do feel good in new clothes or getting a different hairdo – makeovers are harmless fun.  But why is it overwhelmingly women who are the targets  candidates?  It’s only when you imagine a man in her place that the whole thing becomes preposterous – so why are we still putting the focus on how a woman looks?  To be honest, when the segment started, my cheerio-addled mind didn’t bat an eyelid.  It’s normal for me to see a woman being talked through her shortcomings in the beauty stakes.  And that’s worrying.

For centuries, women have been the object of the ‘male gaze’.  This term, first coined by Laura Mulvey (feminist film theorist), encompasses the idea that, in art and the media, women are constantly being viewed and represented through a masculine, heterosexual lens, as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer.  And considering the fact that a lot of our learned behaviour and beliefs come from what we read and see on our screens, it follows that women have been taught to identify their worth with their physical appearance.  Women are consistently scrutinised and shamed for their body shape, size and age.  And what this segment showed is that even the idea of self-care is being sabotaged by companies who want to sell you something and are using it as another stick to beat you with.  Have a spa day, a massage or a facial, you’ll feel better.  More pressure to be happy, compliant and pretty.

Why can’t we be treated the same as men?  Just allowed to exist without this constant pressure to be pleasing on the eye?  I saw a tweet recently about a daughter asking her mother why her pants didn’t have pockets like daddy’s and her mother replied, ‘Welcome to the patriarchy!’  It’s funny but it’s also true.  Why do men get to have comfortable, functional clothes and yet, as a woman, if you’re not suffering for your beauty, are you even a woman?  Who sets these standards and will we ever stop perpetuating the myth that an attractive woman is happier, more successful and just better.

Our idea of female beauty has been so restricted by the male gaze and the patriarchal constructs which have, down through the centuries, prevented women from being celebrated as anything other than purely ornamental.  Did you know that the great composer Felix Mendelssohn had a sister who also composed?  Nope, probably not, because Fanny Mendelssohn was not allowed to pursue her talent (a letter from her father warned her that music could merely be an ‘ornament’ for a woman).  There is an entire army of women – artists, scientists, politicians, who have been erased from the history books (check out author Joanne Harris’ #CelebratingWomen for starters), because the writers of history (men) made sure they were kept out of them.  So even as women ourselves, we have limited examples to gauge what being a woman is from a feminine perspective, because historically, our opinion of ourselves just wasn’t as important.  I really wished the TV show could have celebrated that woman’s intelligence – the training she must have undertaken to become a paramedic.  Her dedication, to her job and her family.  The beauty in her confidence, her playfulness when answering dumb-ass questions and frankly her bravery to go on a TV show and have people call out her dark clothes fetish, just so she could get a free makeover!

I hope that men and women can start seeing this for what it is and demanding better from the media.  There was an article recently in a woman’s magazine, written by women, asking if Meghan’s style was making Kate look like a frump and thankfully people were quick to call the publication out on pitching women against each other like that.  One wore a shirt and trousers, the other wore a dress.  END OF DISCUSSION!  Again, imagine an article questioning if Harry’s facial hair was making William feel inadequate?  It just wouldn’t happen, but we’ve become so used to seeing this kind of crap about women that sometimes we don’t even notice.

I read a great quote from Caitlin Moran that puts this whole thing into context.

“I have a rule of thumb that allows me to judge,  whether or not some sexist bullshit is afoot. Obviously, it’s not 100% infallible but by and large it definitely points you in the right direction and it’s asking this question; are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men’s time? Are the men told not to do this, as it’s letting the side down?

Almost always the answer is no. The boys are not being told they have to be a certain way, they are just getting on with stuff.”

― Caitlin MoranHow to Be a Woman

We have the opportunity now to write a new story with a new narrative.  Let’s use it!  Let’s celebrate women for their passion, their talent, their creativity.  Women who, despite pressure from society, don’t look for approval; clever women, funny women, women who stand up for injustice, like the woman who stood up on a plane recently in order to save a man’s life.  Women who campaigned for reproductive rights in Ireland, who fight climate change, women who challenge the status quo, women who (as our former president Mary Robinson once remarked) instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.  Even women who stay at home and eat cheerios and write blogs.  We are all worth celebrating, regardless of how we look.

11 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Leave Women Alone?

  1. An excellent read! I recently found myself thinking similar things – some women are into fashion, makeup, and jewelry, which is great. But some women are not – and why is that wrong?
    I think that’s the thing people don’t get about feminism- it’s all about each individual woman being exactly who SHE wants to be!

    1. Thank you 🙂 Absolutely, I enjoy a bit of fashion and make-up, but I don’t want to be defined by it, or told that I’m ‘slacking’ if I don’t fit into some narrow definition of what beauty is.

  2. Such an interesting read. It does annoy me a lot when I am expected to wear make up and get dressed up to go out some where. While there are times that it is nice to get the old glad rags and war paint on I don’t think it necessary to do this all the time.

      1. Absolutely, each and every person has their own style and and their own interpretation of what their style is. Sometimes practicality is more essential. I hate clothes shopping as I often find that the latest trend doesn’t feel comfortable, and don’t even get me going on the vagaries of clothes sizeing or finding a simple bra without the push em up to your chin padding.

  3. This literally made me LOL > “The stylist goes on to tell the frumpy saddo woman that she would ‘feel better in herself’ if she wore more yellows and reds. ‘More people will gravitate towards you,’ she promised. *Note to self: never wear red or yellow.”

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