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Feminspire | April 23, 2014

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No, “Looking Great” Is Not a Matter of Feminism

No, “Looking Great” Is Not a Matter of Feminism

I found this article in an old issue of Harpers Bazaar. It was written by Elizabeth Wurtzel, a woman (and prolific writer) who, self-described, is 45 but looks half her age. And she has not pulled off this remarkable feat without work. She looks that good because she works for it. Her routine is impressive, but that’s not the point of the article. The point of the article is that, to her, “self-improvement is a matter of self-respect” because she wishes for a world where “the impossible standard of female beauty [is] a daily chore for all…because looking great is a matter of feminism.”

There’s been a lot of talk about feminism in the media lately. Katy Perry and Marissa Mayer aren’t into it, Sheryl Sandberg sort-of is, etc. But the concept that looking good is an integral piece of achieving complete gender equality (call me old-fashioned, but “feminism”, to me, means thinking that women and men deserve equal opportunity, equal pay, and equal rights and access) seems ridiculous.

Elizabeth Wurtzel, who is shockingly successful, strives to look great. Not to further her career, or have a family, or save the world, but to look great. This desire is what her article talks about, as if her gym routine and diet regime and skin-care regimen are the things to be proud of, rather than her writing credentials (impressive) or her alma mater (not mentioned) or how nice she is to others (not very, based on the article). She talks about how her mother wouldn’t even go to the laundromat without lipstick and high heels and how this has given her this great, fresh take that looking good translates to feeling good. And, to an extent, I can understand that. The effect of a new shirt or my favorite pair of boots on a shitty day is incredible, but that’s personal and specific to me. Not so for Ms. Wurtzel. She universalizes this phenomenon. Her article implies that all women love clothes and all women should care about looking good. If she, at 45, can look this good, we, at 20-something, have no excuse for looking like crap.

“I simply believe it is common decency to be presentable,” she says, after listing the skin cream and lip balm she always wears, no matter how late she is or how hungover or how anything. She equates sloppiness to a “wounded world”. Because forgetting real problems for a moment, nothing embodies the vagaries of living in Manhattan so much as 20-something girls who have “given up” by looking “sloppy”.

Wurtzel puts looking good on par with academic excellence, athletic prowess, and workplace performance. And, for some, I’m sure, it truly is. But when Wurtzel says that “not everyone is born beautiful but absolutely everybody can become so,” I think she is missing the point. My singular goal in life is not, actually, to become “beautiful”. Nor is that the goal of any of my friends. We are graduating college in three weeks. We want to be OBGYNs in developing countries. We want to be civil engineers. We want to be the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. We want to change the landscape of public health. We want to be writers. We want to be lawyers. We want to run advertising firms. We want to be teachers. We want to be actresses. We want to build rocket ships. We want to be politicians. We want to fix public education in America. We want so much more than to just be beautiful.

Written by Samantha Jaffe

  • Emma

    But hey, the idea that a woman who values “looking great” is frivolous and silly just reinforces the notion that female beauty is primarily through the lens of and for men, and that a woman who wants to look good is in pursuit of male attention. I think that a woman deciding to look great as her own choice for her own benefit is pretty damn feminist. I think speaking for everyone as Ms. Wurtzel does in her article is problematic, but it sounds like looking great is a pretty essential part of who she is, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. Yes women are a lot of other things besides beautiful things for men to look at, but condemning women who choose to value their own physical beauty (or sexuality for that matter) just reinforces the notion that feminine beauty only exists for men.

    • sarah staniforth

      The article doesn’t say that women who value looking good are frivolous or silly though? Just that it’s stupid to say that women should make themselves look ‘good’ by patriarchal standards as a feminist act. That doesn’t make sense. And a woman who CHOOSES to look good isn’t making that choice in a vacuum. The ‘benefit’ it gives her is tied up with the rewards women get for doing what the patriarchy wants.

  • Sully

    There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good, but the problem is everyone probably has a different standard of what looking good is. Her mom never left the house without lipstick and heels because she thought that’s what looked good. I have no problem leaving the house without lipstick and heels, but I have my own standard of what it means to be ready to leave the house as I’m sure most people do.

  • Emily Vrotsos

    I remember having a discussion like this in my Intro to Women’s Studies course during undergrad. Something that always stuck with me after that conversation was that it is acceptable to care about your looks, your make-up, and how you dress as long as you understand why you do it. If you understand the implications of wanting to “look good” and how most of those desires stem from the opinions of others and the definition of “looking good” in the U.S. is a Westernized sociocultural expectation, then it’s up to you what you want to do with it. That being said, I agree with you: I don’t think Wurtzel is coming from that perspective at all.

  • Medb

    From what I can tell, Elizabeth Wurtzel is expressing an unhealthy dichotomy between looking/being “Slovenly” and being Intensely made-up and polished. And that bothers me, but here is what I think is really twisted about the article: Right after she identifies appearance she totally abandons the core idea of feminism. it’s not that she’s mis-labeled an unrelated issue. she has gotten it 100% backwards. She isn’t promoting beauty for self-image or feminine identity reasons. She’s trying to convince women that we OWE beauty to the world, regardless of your individual values or priorities, because there is only ‘decent’ way to present yourself (feminine, made-up, media-standard ‘good looks) And she puts so much emphasis on products and routines that it’s clear she has no respect for natural state beauty or self-love and acceptance. She’s Telling women that your appearance does not belong to you. And that’s why this woman scares me. she believes that “Catcalls are not a feminist issue, but apathy is.”

    RED FLAG. RED FLAG. Because last I checked, the sexualization of women without their consent was a BIG FLIPPING FEMINIST ISSUE.