Are women obsessed with their bodies at the expense of wider social power? That’s the argument made in a recent New York Times op-ed by Katrin Bennhold. In the piece, entitled “New Goal for Women? Rising Above Having It All,” Bennhold writes that most of her girlfriends in London – herself included – have listed losing weight as their top goal for the year. She goes on to ask, “Are women bad at setting goals for themselves — or setting themselves the wrong goals?”
I read this piece a couple of days ago, and since then I have gone back and forth between thinking the essay is bullshit and thinking Bennhold has a point, then going back to thinking the essay is bullshit. I’ve come to the conclusion that the essay is both bullshit and that she has a point.
Let me first tell you why I think she has a point.
Sometimes I think about everything that is expected of women in order for us to be considered respectable, and I get very tired. The make-up, the hair, the clothes, the skin care, the jewelry, the shoes, the figure…it’s a lot of work. But it’s work that’s supposed to be invisible – we are supposed to seem natural and effortless in all of these things – and that effortlessness paradoxically requires even more effort. As a result, we ladies are operating at an effort deficit when compared to our gentlemen counterparts.
Now, I’m not going to mount some campaign to liberate ladies from the oppression of lip gloss and leg-shaving. Hardly! I like lip gloss and I tend to be fanatical about shaving my legs. I just think it’s worth pointing out that beauty standards expect a hell of a lot more out of me than they do, say, my husband, and that all of this extra effort adds up over time and ultimately leaves us with less effort to dedicate to other things. I mean, it would be nice if time-space would expand to give us an extra hour per day to deal with our hair, but it doesn’t. We’ve got the same twenty-four hours a day as everyone else, and we ladies have a tendency to spend more of that time on our bodies and appearances than men do.
Now. Here’s why this op-ed bothered me.
First, I’m going to assume that Bennhold’s friends are considering losing weight by exercising and eating healthier food, in which case I have a hard time thinking that’s some kind of superficial waste of one’s life. In fact, I think caring for your body – and that doesn’t necessarily mean losing weight! – is one of the most important things you can do. Proper self-care allows me to perform well at my job, to be a better friend and wife, to retain more of what I learn, to handle stress in ways that are not self-destructive.
These things become even more important when dealing with the kind of high-powered careers Bennhold wants women to become more invested in pursuing. Power careers are rampant with stress, and the people who hold those careers can either deal with that stress by drinking and smoking, or they can run and swim laps. Guess what I think is a better choice?
Of course all of this assumes that Bennhold’s friends want to try to lose weight by eating healthier and exercising more (and I recognize that conflating the two is problematic, so hold your fire, please). If they are thinking about losing weight by doing a master cleanse or eating 800 calories a day or doing the grapefruit diet or whatever, then forget this point, because that shit’s just ridiculous and hardly qualifies as “self-care.”
My second issue is that, while Bennhold pays some lip service to some socially embedded inequalities, like lack of access to child care, impenetrable old-boys clubs and work cultures that assume we are all robots, she completely overlooks the fact that we live in a culture that expects women to adhere to specific standards in order to be taken seriously. Think about the recent study that found women who wear make-up are considered more competent than women who do not. Or the beauty editors who said black women who wore their hair in natural styles were being “political.” Or all of the research that has found thin women are the beneficiaries of all kinds of privileges denied to heavier women.
It’s not like we women do these things because we are vapid little giggle-bots who can’t be bothered with anything more challenging than a flat-iron. We do these things because we are rewarded for doing so. We can opt out of the beauty game, but society will extract a price for our rebellion. Sure, the trappings of femininity can be very fun and enjoyable (see: lip gloss), but you can’t untangle the “fun” part of it from the “privilege” part of it.
Finally, I’ve got to admit that I am experiencing a degree of fatigue inspired by all of these well-meaning feminist ladies who want the rest of us feminist ladies to aim our laser sights on presidencies and corporate boards and such. While I understand the need for gender parity among the power brokers of society, I also can’t blame anyone who looks at the sacrifices demanded to occupy those echelons and says “fuck it.” I mean, you tell me I have to put my career first always? And skip kids and relationships and not have any hobbies and just eat-breathe-sleep my career? A career in a field that is most likely something I will find soul-destroying and ethics-corroding? Gee. Where do I sign up.
Listen, I get that this is very appealing to certain women (and men – let’s not act like every man in the world is clamoring for the chance to spend 14 hours a day in the office while his family slowly forgets what he looks like), and if this is what they want, by all means, more power to them. They’ve got my support. But my ambitions in the world lie elsewhere, and I can’t deny that I feel a bit of resentment every time I hear feminists say things like this, as if focusing my efforts on, say, training for a marathon as opposed to climbing the ranks at my profession is somehow undermining the cause of women every where. You’ll have to forgive me if I want more out of my life than to be the best little economic production unit I can possibly be.
So these are my thoughts on the matter. What do you think? Do you think Bennhold’s essay is full of shit? Do you think I’m full of shit? I’d like to know.