Does this dress make me look frivolous?
The beauty paradox that women just can't escape
These days, when I'm looking for juicy internet reading, I head to Reddit's "Am I The Asshole?" forum. For advice-column obsessives like me, it's an online playground, where people share stories of outrageous or questionable behavior — some true, some embellished or outright invented — and ask for summary judgment from the anonymous crowd: Who, if anyone, is The Asshole here?
Reading AITA posts is a voyeuristic pleasure, a chance to break out the popcorn and speculate. But, to me, these posts are often shockingly telling, since so many stories involve highly gendered interactions — cisgender men behaving in entitled and callous ways towards the women in their lives.
Case in point: Last month, my social media feeds blew up with an AITA post about a wedding dress. The poster described himself as a man in his late 30s, engaged to a woman in her mid-20s. She had chosen a wedding dress that he deemed far too expensive, and couldn't understand why she balked when he suggested purchasing a $50 imitation from the shopping app Wish. Even after clarifying that his bride-to-be would be paying for the dress with her own money, and that they had plenty of money left in the wedding budget to cover such an expense, he insisted that it was unreasonable for her to spend so much money on a wedding gown, when they could put that money towards their honeymoon instead. The price tag of said contentious dress? Just under $1,000.
Unsurprisingly, the internet had opinions about this affair. Most of the commentary I saw focused on how out-of-touch this man seemed to be with the norms of the Wedding-Industrial Complex, where dresses routinely cost multiple thousands of dollars. But I noticed something even more ugly and pernicious at play: the assumption that women are frivolous, and therefore worthy of ridicule, for spending money on their appearance.
I was never the kind of child who imagined my eventual wedding, or paired my first name with the last names of my schoolyard crushes. Yet, through cultural osmosis, I've absorbed the notion that a woman's wedding dress must be the most spectacular and perfectly-fitting garment of her life, and that she must appear at the peak of feminine flawlessness in order to successfully inhabit her title of "bride." And, at the same time, she shouldn't spend too much money on a wedding dress, or have too specific a vision of what it might look like on her body, lest she be deemed a vain spendthrift.
In her seminal feminist chestnut The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes of a societal and commercial apparatus designed to impress upon women the pursuit of beauty at all costs. In this paradigm, women are taught to value conventional attractiveness as the primary measure of our worth. The closer we are able to get to a specific ideal of youthful, feminine appearance — slim and fair-skinned, with thick, long, lustrous hair and taut, unblemished skin — the more worthy we are of respect and recognition. And if we don't naturally conform to that ideal, capitalism offers us a dizzying array of of options for purchasing access to it.
This is obviously distressing, on the surface; but we've been so thoroughly conditioned to accept it that it becomes background noise. We are encouraged — I could say required — to spend money on clothing, grooming, and otherwise modifying our bodies to meet the standard. I'm relatively low-key when it comes to beauty and fashion, but I spent well over $1,000 last year on grooming products, clothes, and shoes. I've invested weeks or even months trying and discarding new products, in order to find the ones that I am most willing to stick with long-term.
As Megan Garber writes in The Atlantic, "Not only do [these efforts] reaffirm the notion that beauty can be bought — that it is a matter of class privilege — but they also, steadily, transform the meaning of beauty itself: from a matter of luck, an accident of atomic arrangement, to the product of dedicated labor." And here comes the flip side: Even while we're conditioned to pursue conventional attractiveness at all times, we are also told that it is unseemly to invest significant time and money in doing so. The labor we put into being properly feminine is then weaponized against us. We are caricatured as superficial, and dismissed as unserious.
Meanwhile, my husband spends at least as much money, if not more, on tech gadgets as I do on clothing and shoes. But because this is a matter of masculine enjoyment versus feminine vanity, the way we talk about those expenditures has an entirely different weight and color. He talks about his big-ticket purchases in terms of the value he's gotten out of them, how much he enjoys using them, what they do and whether they do it well. When I talk about my wedding dress, I feel compelled to emphasize that I bought it on sale.
In a patriarchy, masculine-coded priorities are considered non-negotiable to the point of being unremarkable, while feminine-coded ones are fair game for criticism — even abuse. So it's not accidental that women are encouraged to value appearance, and then shamed for doing so. Our culture discusses physical appearance in terms of vanity, superficiality, fluff; the fact that these appearance standards are also considered non-negotiable gets elided or outright ignored. And when our only vocabulary for discussing beauty and fashion is skin-deep, it's easy to slide into dismissing ourselves and others for prioritizing the very things we've been trained to prioritize. Like, say, a well-fitting wedding dress.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.