The Sexist

The Work of Making Femininity Look Effortless

good wife

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.

TJ adds:

. . . 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.

  • TJ

    Ok... I feel special for getting a semi shout out. Woo!

  • Molly

    Whenever 1950's stereotypes are mocked, I always laugh, but then also realise that the problems with ideas expressed in things like "The Good Wife's Guide" are *not* the behaviours themselves, but rather the expectation of those behaviours, and the degree of self-denial that is expected to accompany them.

    When your loved one comes home after a hard day, doesn't it make sense to help them relax and feel comforted and cared for? Isn't it a good idea to take care of yourself and look your best? Don't we all appreciate a clean house versus a filthy pigsty? Of course we do.

    The problem is exactly as you put it -- "Effortless Beauty," when it is expected, turns caring for a loving partner into a joyless chore. If a woman must always be a Stepford Wife, her husband doesn't get to see her as a full human being, sometimes in need of being cared for herself. Real joy comes from doing acts of service to those we love. You you don't get to feel that happiness if you're a servant, not performing service, if that distinction is clear.

  • Kristina

    a. this list is on my wall along with actual ads from the fifties asking women if they prefer detergent in flakes or granules (because clearly men don't do dishes or even know what dirty dishes are), how a woman kept her husband faithful by treating his tummy ache with milk of magnesia (really?! that's all it takes??? gonna start force-feeding that to future boyfriends), etc. i am kind of sad that it's fake because my feminist-enabling father gave it to me and i love it dearly, but it was always meant as entertainment so i'm leaving it up.
    b. i sometimes resent how wrong it feels to let a guy know about how much work goes into the prettifying process, (let alone if he watched! omg!), because we as women HEAR alllllll about men's grooming. "baby, i shaved down there for you. don't you like how smooth it is? and i put cologne down there. did you notice? and i worked out today. baby, can you feel my muscles and tell me how big they're getting?!" i really wish i could respond in kind, (and frankly that's why i do NOT do well with needy guys), but Society and Menz say "no. be pretty for me. be effortless. wake up like this, spend a long day at work like this, go to bed like this, and repeat." so, thank you for voicing that frustration.
    c. i'm curious: what do lesbian women have to say about this effortless thing? does your partner expect this? if you are butch, must you effortlessly perform that too?
    d. more questions now! what about trans ladies?! as ladies always striving to pass, is it even worse? or trans men? is there a higher pressure to effortlessly be uber-man? i don't want to ruffle feathers, but as a cisgendered, straight, ally lady i want to know. (i'm also getting a degree in counseling, so the effort for cross-cultural awareness is ongoing.)

  • Heather Denkmire

    Over at my other blog this is the topic I've been obsessed with lately. The expectations. I came late to Wolf's The Beauty Myth, but what you've written is all in line with that (I'm sure you realize).

    Appearing to make no effort is precisely why I refuse to accessorize. Seriously. It's ridiculous, but, hats, scarves, even jewelry makes me feel like someone will (GOD FORBID) think I put effort into how I look and I HATE THAT. So dumb to be ruled by external crap.

    Thanks for another great piece.

  • TJ

    @Kristina, as a lesbian I grapple with this issue all the time. Not only do I have to deal with having to underplay my weight with straight women (my favorite line is, "I'm skinny, but I have a THICK personality!") and have the long conversations about how lucky I am to be this size, but I have those SAME RIDICULOUS CONVERSATIONS WITH LESBIANS! I cannot understand how, as women who love women, we can't appreciate all shapes and sizes of the female form. We have the same issues of conformity that the straight world has. It's amazing how much the lesbian world mirrors the straight world in many ways.

    And this is one of those that absolutely sucks.

  • Kristina

    @TJ thank you so much for responding! i feel like so much of the whole body weight and looks issue is only considered from a cis, straight, female perspective. clearly this is not the case. i feel like my profession could benefit SO MUCH from looking at disorders and societally-based stressors in general from a nontraditional standpoint. i mean, yeah, it's fabulous that we're now looking at women from a point of view other than "hysterical" but lesbian women, trans women, trans men, gay men, etc are hardly ever considered. we are doing more harm than good by further marginalizing and minimizing very real issues.

  • Melissa

    To a certain extent, I think a lot of ciswomen don't even realize how much effort they're putting into their beauty routines. They're just so used to it that it all seems like second nature. (Or who knows, maybe that was just me.) I don't think I really thought about just how much time and money it was taking me until I went through a period when I stopped all of it. (As in, didn't do anything to beautify myself beyond basic hygiene.)
    The contradictions just get deeper and deeper when you think about it. We (ciswomen who perform femininity, that is) have to put in all this time, energy, and money to fit the beauty standard. But we have to make sure the men think we just look that way naturally. Meanwhile, we have to complain enough to other women about how ugly and fat we are in order to not seem stuck up, but if we ever actually admit to ourselves just how MUCH effort we put into everything then
    -we're anti-feminist (for feminists)
    -we'd have to admit that those feminists might have a point (for anti-feminists).
    And none of us want any of that to be true. Whew!

  • groggette

    Granted I'm coming at this from the cis side of things but I do think it is worse most of the time for trans women. The big reason being, I don't have to worry about someone trying to kill me if I don't look sufficiently feminine enough.

  • groggette

    and I should have added... or for looking too feminine and "tricking" some body.

  • Kristina

    groggette, yeah that's what I was thinking as well. That's a lot more pressure to be under. I'd imagine it's like the pressure we feel to conform multiplied by 100 at least. The goal of any given day is to pass believably, whereas as cis women we are just living up to an expectation. So this compounds living up to an expectation, after also surpassing masculine expectations to just meet the bare minimum. And, as we all well know as womankind in general, the bare minimum will just not do.

  • amellifera

    It's interesting how many of these things are actually in the Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book my mom gave me (same one her mom gave her when she got married). I seriously wish a feminist would give it a gander and comment. The pictures alone are worth some analysis - like the one with the wife bending over to get something out of the oven while the husband grabs the ummm... buns that are strategically placed on the table.

    Anyway, the back of the book has short cut tips such as these:
    "Eat proper food for health and vitality. Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup, a dash of cologne, and perhaps some simple earrings. Does wonders for your morale."

    "Notice humorous and interesting incidents to relate at dinnertime, etc."

    "When standing, keep erect posture."

    "Do head work while dusting, sweeping washing dishes, paring potatoes, erc. Plan family recreation, the garden, etc."

    The scariest ones:
    "If you feel tired, lie down on the floor on your back, put your hands above your head, close your eyes and relax for 3 to 5 minutes." That one has a picture of a woman on the kitchen floor with zzzzzzzz's.

    "If after following all these rules for proper rest, exercise, diet, you are still tired and depressed, have a medical check-up and follow doctor's orders." read: valiuuuum!

  • amellifera

    In terms of the effort question, I find that I get a lot of responses to the not-shaving-my-legs thing. It's a conscious decision to abstain from one of those "effortless" things. Most people don't notice/don't care/have good enough manners not to say anything if they do. But there's a small minority of people who have been pretty vocal, and the worst offenders are always men. Women very rarely come right out and say they think it's gross. They usually use complinsults, such as "Oh, I wish I were brave enough to go out looking like that." Some people mean it, but the don't use the "looking like that." On the other hand, I've had long conversations with men I barely knew about how gross it is. When I ask for one legitimate reason (other than social norms) for shaving they spluttered, "But men don't find that attractive! I mean, no offense, but I wouldn't date a woman who didn't shave no matter how attractive she is otherwise." I'm married, and in more than one conversation my husband was sitting right there. There are even more guys who have commented about it to my husband when I'm not around. Saying, "I just wouldn't be able to date someone who didn't shave. It's just my personal preference." Okay. That's nice, but what does that have to do with the Broncos? I don't really understand why they're so interested. I'm not going to sleep with any of them, obviously, they're talking to my husband! So why does it bother them so much that I opt out of this particular female labor?

  • Glittertrash

    @Kristina, re: c. I am queer, and was talking to another queer friend about this tonight (we are both people you might describe as 'lesbians').

    We are both female-designated-by-society, and both high-femme in our presentation. High femme as in short fingernails, hairy legs & underarms, fantastic frocks and co-ordinated hats & gloves. We were both raised without any in-family gender-training on "How To Be A Woman": that is, How To Do All The Work Required To Be Properly Feminine, And Make It Look Effortless. In my case, because my mother is an awesome kind of mad-professor type who has never seemed to have any space in her brain for that kind of business, and in my friend's case for complicated reasons.

    We talked about the mystifying teenaged years, when female friends all magically seemed to acquire this knowledge about how to be properly feminine, or the drive to seek to acquire it through endless study of magazines, make-up and mirrors, and how that completely passed us by. How we never learned about foundation or eyeshadow or walking in heels or leg-shaving or... the entire, gigantic field of study of How To Be Feminine. How we knew we were kind of failing at this role of "female" we were supposed to be performing, and weren't sure if we were mad for being left out of the club, or (more and more as we grew up) relieved at having escaped the compulsory gender-indoctrination.

    How we came out as our queer selves, living comfortably in our un-product-painted, un-prettified female-designated bodies. And then in queer culture found this gender space called "femme": hey, look at all these people acknowledging femininity as an external construct, one which can be subject to art and creativity! Wow, cool! And we set out and learned, as adults, the bits that interested us. The walking in high heels and the matching hats to gloves and the intricacies of false eyelashes and, over time, the femme solidarity movements of queer cultures. But still skipped all the time-consuming expensive bits which are supposed to be invisible.

    We talked about how weird that is, as feminists and queers and people who occupy genderqueer space, doing a version of femininity that is so over-the-top in some stylings and yet so utterly failing at the Basic Laws Of Femininity (read: hairlessness, and obliteration of visible biology). Like we have stolen little pieces of knowledge that are supposed to be transmitted magically along with the "F" on the birth-certificate. There are schools of thought, in queer feminism & queer femme-inism, that state that the existence of constructed queer femmes is all about a big shiny-manicured FUCK YOU to the idea that this is is supposed to be "natural" or "inherent". We make the work visible on purpose.

    As far as the response of female lovers: some have been mystified by the pretty-things obsessions (why would a lesbian get so excited about ruffled underpants?), some have been mystified even more by the refusal to perform the minimum of body-hair grooming required to qualify as attractive. Most are generally happy enough about access to a naked lady that they're not so concerned with policing my gender presentation.

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  • Kristina

    @Glittertrash Thank you for that! I guess I never actually thought about it, but I'm pretty much self-trained as well. As a studier of human behavior, I'm better than most at figuring out appropriate and deciding whether I want to act accordingly. So the teaching myself thing wasn't really an issue. What became the issue was realizing that it apparently just isn't okay to walk around in jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers and be pretty. That's disconcerting to straight males and females. It's this weird misunderstood undercurrent. Being confident really does make you attractive, and how could anyone be confident without walking the walk of beauty regiments?! I'm realizing slowly that it *is* my choice and maybe knowing how to actually be effortless is pretty wonderful. I have a lot of respect for you, though, in that you are really doing it your way. It's what you and your friend think is attractive, regardless of society's pressure. It's really refreshing. :)

  • K

    Glittertrash, you just described my adolescence perfectly! My mother also occupied a different sphere, both of the house and of reality, than I did. She definitely "did" her femininity: perms, dye-jobs, facials, eye-brow plucking. As a young girl, she adored dressing me in pink frilly frocks with satin sashes, when all the other girls were wearing mini-skirts and tank tops. But somehow, adolescent-me was totally beyond her interest in terms of physical appearance. She had almost no input on my wardrobe or hair once I passed the age of 12.

    All my friends seemed to just instinctively "know" that they wanted perms & pierced ears, needed a curling iron, couldn't stand the celluloid and stretch marks on their thighs. Where did they *learn* all that? From older sisters? From each other? Those magazines were everywhere at recess, but they made no sense to me. What was a "mani/pedi"? WTF was "waxing" and why did you do it if it hurt?

    The only thing I was ever "shamed" about from other girls was my abstinence from shaving. It bothered me so much, I put off shaving for years out of perversity. (I do it now cause I like the smooth feeling of my legs.) I was interested in make-up until I had to purchase some with *my own* hard-won cash, and that killed my interest pretty quickly. I was denied ear-piercing until high school, so I rebelliously got them done one day and neither parent nor siblings even noticed.

    As an adult, I'm pretty grateful that my mother let me create my own feminine identity after I hit puberty. I have so few of the hang-ups many of my friends have about leaving the house "undone" or not having the most-trendy clothes. I am, however, terrified that any daughter of mine will turn out hyper-feminine and demand that I buy her Abercrombie or (ye gods!) *J. Crew* clothing. Do I refuse to let her create her own feminine identity because it clashes with mine? Or do I stand back and watch her assimilate what the culture tells her she ought to do?

  • Kristina

    K, hahahahahaha I had that same feeling as a kid! That feeling of looking around going "wait, what?! Where did you hear that my hair was supposed to be straight and blonde? I missed that train...?"

    And I'd say just let her figure it out on her own. Be there for support when her attempts to fit in aren't enough and when her subsequent attempts to be different make it worse. She'll be a stronger person if she goes through it in her own way. And realistically she'll be a lot like you due to nature and nurture and whatnot, so I wouldn't worry if I were you... :)