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Invisible female labor

By Amanda Marcotte
Sunday, April 18, 2010 15:05 EDT
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I’ve been thinking a lot about Amanda Hess’s blog post about how women have to walk through this social political maze when it comes to beauty. She observes something I’ve written about before, about how there’s pressure on women to put forward a lot of effort to be beautiful, but to conceal that effort from men in order to make it seem you were just born that way. Much of the pressure to conceal comes in the form of jokes about how frivolous and stupid girl stuff is. Women are mocked for spending time on their bodies, hair, and faces, for having medicine cabinets teeming with products, for being obsessed with clothes and shoes. But if you decide to react to all these messages about how you’re a bad person for caring about this stuff by not caring about that stuff, you’ll be considered and even worse person, probably a “man-hater”. Choosing to say no to even a little of it gets the attention of the NY Times, for fuck’s sake. So clearly, the ideal is to do all the work but hide it from men. But as Amanda points out, you also need to make the effort not to hide it from other women. If “effortless perfection” looks too effortless to other women, they can start to resent you for it. It’s a fucked up situation.

The use of jokes to shame women about doing work they can’t opt out of without getting it worse is all over this New York Daily News story. In horror, the Daily News reports that women spend an average of three years of their lives shopping, and then proceeds to make fun of women for being incapable of finding useful ways to spend our time. (Hat tip.)

“I think it would be more than three years,” laughed Sandy Mahadeo, 20, a sales clerk from Richmond Hills, lugging a huge bag from Macy’s. “I love everything about shopping.”

“She goes every day!” interrupted her fiancé, Nicholas Ragbir, 20, echoing the belief of many men who feel women spend way more time than that shopping.

Ha ha! I will mock her for working so hard to look good for me! Ah, Sandy. Stop beating up on yourself and tell your man that if he doesn’t like it, you’ll wear nothing but mom jeans and kitten-bedazzled sweaters, and he’ll shut up.

Respondents said they make an average of 301 shopping trips – which add up to 399 hours and 46 minutes – every year.

“I think that’s really unfortunate,” said Marci Bykat, 31, a Brooklyn potter, suggesting there are more productive ways to spend time. “But it’s true.”

They then imply that 299 of those 301 trips involve searching for the perfect purse. But if you think it’s fishy to suggest that the average woman goes clothes shopping after work on all but 64 days of the year, you’d be right. They bury this in the last line of the story.

It isn’t just hunting for accessories or clothing that sucks so much time – each year, women spend nearly 95 hours shopping for groceries, the study showed.

Oh. In fact, if you read the actual press release, you’ll find that women do in fact go to the grocery store more than to Macy’s.

Women also dedicate 90 shopping trips a year to keeping up appearances – shopping for clothes 30 times, shoes 15 times, accessories 18 times and toiletries 27 times.

So, the purse-hunting is down to 18 times a year, and even then, it’s buried in looking for belts, jewelry, etc. Considering that you have to wear clothes every day, this doesn’t seem that excessive. Every time you stop by Threadless, it counts towards this final number of 90. Clothes shopping edged out grocery shopping in time, but only by a little, which makes sense. Grocery shopping is less time-consuming, because you know exactly what you’re looking for.

But let’s be clear. What this survey showed isn’t that women are frivolous consumption machines who are incapable of enjoying the higher things in life. (Hell, 31 hours a year are spent shopping for books!) What this survey showed is something we all already know on some level—consuming is hard and mostly thankless work, and so it falls on women’s shoulders. The pollsters certainly thought so.

Buying household essentials and keeping the family fed and clothed means the typical female shops for a staggering 25,184 hours and 53 mins over a period of 63 years.

But even when we’re talking about clothes shopping, is it really evidence towards women’s fundamental stupidity and frivolousness? I think not. Performing femininity, as I noted, isn’t really experienced as optional by many women. For instance, if I’m thinking about how to look before I go to an event where my picture is going to be taken, I usually opt for a full face of make-up, because I’m not unaware of how pictures will show up on the internet, and I’m going to be judged by how I look. And we’re so used to seeing women with full faces of make-up that not having one will often make people think you look tired or haggard. (Look at how even the most beautiful women in the world are held up to mockery for looking “ugly” when they don’t wear make-up.) Clothes, hair, shoes? Most of the time, if you want to project a “pulled-together” image, much less an attractive one, you have to have a lot of these things, and coordinating them is a lot harder than it is for men. Which means more trips to the store. For instance, I try really, really hard to buy mostly shoes that will be flexible with a lot of outfits, but once in awhile, you buy a dress or skirt and nothing goes with it and whoops! It’s time for another trip to the store.

What’s depressing to me is that I have to justify this by necessity. That fashion is pleasurable for many women is why it’s considered “frivolous”, due to the long-standing cultural belief that if a woman is feeling pleasure, something must have gone wrong. So I look to the cultural pressure to look good to explain why women are stuck in this catch-22, where they’re supposed to shop and pull themselves together, but they’re shamed if they enjoy it. If there was nothing but pleasure and shame in it, a lot more women would give it up, I think. That women insist on taking pleasure in clothes shopping while being shamed over it is admirable. It’s not like the world’s greatest act of bravery to continue applying lipstick after a man snits at you that he prefers “natural” beauty, but it does take self-assurance. (Or, if you want to move up a level of bitch, echo Dolly Parton in “Steel Magnolias”: “There is no such thing as natural beauty.”) I admire the courage of women who say no to beauty standards, but I also admire the women who decide to take audacious pleasure in femininity. Both are rejections of the restraints of femininity, one of the standards themselves, and one of the taboos against women showing their work or taking too much pleasure in it.

I want to add an observation Marc made when I told him about this survey. He noted that it was weird not to research men’s shopping habits, and he felt like if you did, you’d find that a shocking amount of men’s time is spent shopping—especially since they included window shopping. Men’s shopping, he pointed out, is imagined as interesting and useful and not even really shopping in our culture. Whereas shoe buying is considered frivolous, reading tech blogs all day as they wank off about this new consumer product or that isn’t treated as evidence that someone is a bimbo. On the contrary, you’re considered smart for being able to understand all that shit, though it’s not all that more complex to consider the different kinds of processors and memory capabilities on a computer than to consider the difference between fabrics, sizes, cleaning requirements, etc.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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