The High Cost of Being a Woman

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I’ve been trying to write this post for a month and for the life of me I can’t figure out why I’m having so much trouble with it. I’m not trying to explain rocket science here. All I want to say is that it’s expensive being a woman. But every time I try to explain what I mean, my mind starts running in several different directions at once, such as:

Being a woman means maintaining an illusion of femininity. It’s not enough to just be a woman, you also have to build up this whole persona that “proves” that you’re one. And you have to make it seem effortless when it’s anything but.

It’s much harder for women to maintain their gender identity than it is for men. I know that being a guy can be expensive, too, what with all the sports equipment and fancy new cars. But those things are associated with what men do. Women are required to spend ridiculous amount of time, money and energy just to emphasize what they already are.

Feminists in the ’60s tried to release women from the tyranny of society’s expectations. One of the things that attracted me to feminism was its message that a woman shouldn’t be judged by her appearance. Feminists in the ’60s, who were after all part of the whole back-to-nature, anti-establishment movement, rejected the notion that women had to “dress up” in order to be considered feminine.

That was just fine with me.  The idea that I had to work at being feminine just didn’t make sense to me. I thought it was complicated enough just being a person. I didn’t mind getting prettied up every once in a while,  but I just didn’t think I should have to do it all the time.

Society’s expectations of what makes a woman feminine have become more demanding. For instance, it’s much more expensive to be a woman than it was, say forty years ago, when I was a young woman. I think part of this has to do with Baby Boomers being obsessed about aging. But younger women are buying into those concerns as well. Youth-preserving Botox injections,  facial treatments and plastic surgery are more common than ever. Dazzling white teeth are mandatory. You can’t just be thin, you also have to be buff. And God forbid that you would go au naturel where your body hair is concerned.

Today’s feminists embrace their femininity instead of downplaying it. When they buy a new outfit or get their hair done, it’s not for a man, it’s just because they like being pretty. They figure that being feminine—even sexy—is part of their identity.

When women express their femininity, are they doing it for themselves, or for someone else? For me, this is the real issue.It’s hard to tell if it’s bred into us, or if we respond to the way people respond to us, or both, but there’s no question that most women enjoy “girlie” things to some extent.

For example, I never dressed up my daughters in frills and lace, or even primarily in pink, especially not my oldest (we were given a lot of gender-neutral clothing when she was a baby). When she was two, someone gave her a dress with sashes and bows and a perky petticoat and when I tried it on her, she went right up to the full-length mirror and announced, “I so pretty.” (She is still the most feminine of my four daughters.)

Another example: when my daughters were all in grade school they informed me that they wanted me to wear make-up and dress pretty like the other mothers. Here I thought I was being a role model, by showing them that it wasn’t necessary to play up your looks as a woman. Did they just want me to fit in, or did they just enjoy having a pretty mother because they liked the way I looked?

How do we know our own motivations? It’s really hard to tell how much of our desire to be feminine is innate and how much is tied up with our even stronger desire to be accepted by society. I can’t even draw the line for myself. I guess one way to tell is to ask yourself what you’d do if you were in the wilderness and/or no men were around. I know that when I go on vacation to our cabin I don’t even bother with makeup or fixing my hair, and I wear the oldest and most serviceable clothes. And sometimes I think that I’m more myself during those vacations than I am at any other time or place.

Being a “real” woman is costly. It takes a lot of time and money to be feminine. There are products to apply to every inch of your body. Fashion trends dictate that you’ll spend on clothes like there’s no tomorrow. Manicures, pedicures, waxes (all over your body), hair coloring, cutting and conditioning are a bitch to keep up and expensive as hell. And that’s not even getting into things like dermabrasion, Botox and plastic surgery. If we did everything we thought we should do to accentuate our femininity, we could easily spend a thousand dollars a month. Easily.

That’s just unfathomable to me. Up until recently, I dressed myself with items from eBay and thrift stores. I was proud of my thriftiness. But my daughters joked about it. When I started to buy some clothes that actually fit and were fashionable, they sighed in relief. I started putting some real bucks into my wardrobe and my hair and I found that I felt better about myself because I was getting compliments. But that high leveled out after a while when I realized that I wasn’t perfect and I never would be.

Seeking perfection is a trap. No one has a perfect body, face, skin and hair. And aging is a factor as well: we all age, and in this society, aging is not considered feminine.

How do we escape the trap? The only sure way to escape the trap is to quit playing the game. But that’s not really an answer because there are some things about being feminine that we really enjoy. The main thing we have to do is accept ourselves the way we are. There are unlimited ways to be a woman and we need to appreciate our own uniqueness. We also need to set boundaries that we’re willing to live within. How much money are we willing to spend to maintain our femininity, for instance? What gives us the most satisfaction? What are our priorities?

And then we need to ask ourselves: “If I were all alone in the world, would I still want to do this?”

Published by

Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

2 thoughts on “The High Cost of Being a Woman”

  1. I loved this blog. It is so true. I am learing to just be myself, which is not always easy when everyone around you is telling you you must … whatever! I don’t mind wearing a touch of make up but I don’t color my hair or “foof up” much because I hate it. I try to look nice, but not artificial. That is what is most important to me. I am learning to STOP when my girly girl sister tells me I must please dress more feminine. I like slacks and a top, and I dress for comfort. I am over pleasing everyone else and my journey at 54 is to find out who I am and be comfortable with that. Thanks fo sharing!
    marilyn ( http://marilynsmind.wordpress.com) come by and visit some time.

    1. I bet you thought I forgot about you! I didn’t. But I did just get around to visiting your blog and I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. I caught your post about friendship that you wrote on October 21st and it was excellent. You’re a great writer!

      Come back soon!

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