The Work of Making Femininity Look Effortless
The "Good Wife's Guide"—a list of behaviors and attitudes that a model housewife ought to parrot—though attributed to a 1955 issue of Housekeeping Monthly, is probably a fake (thanks to Can I Get A Man With That for bringing it to my attention). Snopes offers a lengthy (and interesting) rumination on the likelihood that the list is legit; the rumor-busting site eventually concludes that the list is probably not genuine, but that it is "nonetheless a relatively accurate reflection of the mainstream vision of a woman's appointed role in post-war America."
Origins aside, the list reminded me of a debate that's been raised on this blog about the modern performance of femininity: Does our culture value femininity that obviously requires work, or that which appears effortless?
The "Good Wife's Guide" is a series of tips on how to greet your husband when he returns from work. They include:
* "Minimize all noise. At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer, or vacuum."
* "Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you'll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking."
* "Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice."
* "Your goal: To make sure your home a place of peace, order and tranquility where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit."
In these (exaggerated, likely invented, but based on truth) olde-tyme directives, we find that a woman's work includes covering up all signs that this woman has worked at all. A woman's voice is just naturally this soothing, without coaching; the carpet is just naturally this clean, without vacuuming; her face is just this well-rested, without actually ever ceasing work. Here, femininity should appear effortless. However, performances that truly lack effort are frowned upon. In this list, even an activity as lazy as resting is re-framed as work that must be logged for a specific period of time in order to please your husband.
In a recent post, I argued that our culture values women who work hard at being "good" women:
I think part of the reason it’s so difficult to translate feminist awareness into our lives is the particular cultural belief that being a “good” person—and a good woman—does require a lot of work. Girls today don’t just earn social validation by being skinny—they establish their spot in the pecking order by unearthing how much work they spend trying to get there, obsessively discussing how fat they are, and publicly flogging themselves when they fail to live up to perfection—even if they are still very, very skinny.
But in the comments, Emily H. argued that the woman who are more highly valued are those who appear not to have to put such work into their appearances:
I agree with this but I think there’s an opposite tendency in the way women are viewed/validated—the idea of “effortless beauty,” that it’s more admirable for a woman to be skinny & perfect without doing any work to get that way (or without appearing to). Many men think it’s lame for women to diet, and that it’s vain and shallow to put effort into your appearance—but of course they don’t want a fat, ugly girl. I would venture to guess that “working” to be attractive is more valued in all-female social spaces (where it’s part of normal conversation to validate others by talking about things you need to “fix” about yourself), but effortless perfection is often more valued in other contexts.
. . . with regard to how men think of this “effortless beauty,” it really is a situation of perception = reality. They believe, when they see a woman who has on minimal or no make up, looks fit and isn’t eating salads all day long as someone whose beauty is effortless. To me, that just means that they didn’t see the five hours spent at the hair salon, or the half hour it took to put on make up that makes her look so “effortlessly beautiful.” Or, in my case, the stress that took my 25 pounds away.
It seems to me that a good deal of a "woman's work" actually lies in satisfying these contradictions over what a "woman's work" should look like. She must make men see an effortlessly beautiful woman, without revealing any of the work that went into the effortlessness. But she must also tip her hand to other women, to let them know that she's not upsetting the order of things. In this sphere, no amount of work is good enough; women must all work very hard to reach the ideal, but also perpetually situate themselves as failures ("I'm so ugly!") in order to validate other women.
The "good" woman who works hard and then covers her tracks satisfies men, and she satisfies other women. But she really satisfies the cultures and industries that value women as objects—we buy the products, undergo the treatments, and then convince men (and ourselves) that the end result is what women look like without any work. And if that's what women are supposed to look like naturally, well, damn, we really need that product. Effortless beauty takes a lot of work, not the least of which is the mental space devoted to making ourselves respectable to all sets of eyes.