Oh, the vexations of womanhood!
Scene: 8:20 am yesterday morning.
I have an important 9:00 am committee meeting on campus. I need to leave at 8:35 am at the latest in order to get there on time. I have just showered and need to get dressed.
“What will be the most efficient strategy for turning myself out all profesh-like ASAP?” I ask myself.
The answer is obvious: a dress; black opaque tights; flat boots. It’s perfect because a one-piece garment obviates the need for brain-fatiguing decision making.
Glancing in my closet I realize that most of my dresses are sleeveless, which is useful in LA because at some point in the day, even in January, you are probably going to get too warm and wish you had bare arms. My armpits are sporting a week or so of hair growth, however, and I decide that I do not have the time to shave them now, but nor do I wish to wear a sleeveless dress that will reveal slightly bristly underarms. Why? Well, in North America, for better or worse, the hairless armpit for women is the default, is neutral, right?
Now, I could see flaunting boho/Germanic fulsome underarm tresses; but, alas, mine are no fluffy cotton-candy locks. Maybe I just need to re-think my bristles as modish stubble (we are, after all, having a hirsute cultural moment, are we not?), but I don’t quite have the imaginative energy sufficient to re-orienting my perspective this morning.
So: I need a long-sleeved dress.
It is now 8:25. I ransack my closet, desperately thinking, “why do I not have long-sleeved dresses? Why?”
Finally I find a long-sleeved Banana Republic dress at the back of closet that I have not worn for years. Aha! I am triumphant. It is perfect: wrinkle-free fabric, no fiddly zips or buttons. It still fits. I commend myself having at hand a simple grab-and-go-professional-but-pretty dress for precisely this sort of occasion. I pull it on thinking, why do I not wear this all the time???
I look in the mirror and immediately realize why not: the first thing I think upon looking in the mirror is, “Wow. That lady is stacked.” I mean I almost want to wolf-whistle and feel myself up. (Cf. that old Woody Allen joke about what he would do all day if he were a woman.)
The dress has a deep v-neck that, while not actually revealing cleavage, directs the line of sight directly to it. It is not, heaven forfend, a wrap dress (I learnt that lesson on my campus visit at this very institution, a campus visit during which I had a wardrobe malfunction for which a wrap dress was entirely to blame), so there is no actual risk of coming undone in public but, nonetheless, I feel like everyone at the meeting, through no fault of their own, and regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, will find it hard not to stare at my boobs.
I actually sigh audibly, at this point.
What a fucking palaver. And I am not even trying to, you know, apply makeup, or do anything to my hair.
I need to leave in five minutes. I opt for a blazer over the dress; but it only really works as a modesty garment if fully buttoned and it is a bit too warm for that.
So then I go for the scarf. I have so many scarfs. Like, I probably have fifty silk scarves. I never buy them for myself but regularly receive them as gifts, usually from my mother. I enjoy receiving and owning them, and I take pleasure in their texture and appearance. I just never know how to wear them and when I do I feel like I’m dressed up as someone else … like, someone who is a cello teacher, and who also wears lots of chunky amber jewelry and long velvet skirts.
I put the scarf on, draping it so that it softens and hides the neckline. It looks stupid, I decide, but that’s how I always feel when I see myself wearing a decorative scarf. I put on the blazer too. Now it looks better but I am entirely too warm and, in addition, irritated that adding the scarf and blazer defeats the whole point of wearing a dress in the first place, which was to only have to make one decision, POTUS style.
I open the cupboard one more time. Surely there is some high-necked sack dress I have forgotten about? There’s one, but it’s really short. What I need is a long, loose, high-necked sack.
I sigh and go to my meeting in my tarty dress blazered and scarfed. I walk in as the bells are striking 9. I am the last to arrive.
The meeting is to make the final decision regarding whom we accept into the doctoral program for next year. We debate switching around some people who are on the waitlist and who are on the straight admit list. One committee member, a man, suggests that if we bump up a particular student to the straight admit list she’ll be more likely to come because she’ll “feel wanted.” Not necessarily, another colleague, a man, interjects. It could be the opposite, he speculates. Perhaps the way to make them want us is to keep ‘em dangling …. Nah, says someone else, a man, this candidate has already met several of our faculty… the veil of mystery has been lifted, he says, it’s too late for that.
Ahhh, the old veil of mystery.
When my mum was visiting recently we had an interesting conversation about the display of private grooming practices to the public gaze. My mum complained about
women who apply their make-up while on public transport, which is something, you might not be surprised to learn, I do regularly – on the bus, in my case.
“Why, what’s wrong with that?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t want to see that!” Mum exclaimed.
“Why not?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Well, it’s private,” Mum insisted. “I don’t want to see ….. to see how the illusion is created!” she added, which made me laugh and laugh.
“What, you think we need to maintain our feminine mystique?” I asked.
“Yes!” she replied, emphatically.
She reminded me of a story my aunt tells about being at a very fancy fund-raising dinner some years ago. Elizabeth II was at the dinner and, according to my aunt, after dinner set about re-applying her lipstick while sitting at the table. Both my aunt, at the time, and my Mum, when she heard the story, were absolutely aghast at what they took to be the Queen’s egregious breach of social etiquette, as well as the unabashed vulgarity of the act.
Now, in my view, this case differs categorically from the practice of applying make-up on the bus. I agree that it’s rude to apply lipstick at the dining table for the same reason that it’s inconsiderate to check your phone: a dining table is a social space in which you are expected to attend to and converse with your neighbors, an activity that applying lipstick while you stare into your compact mirror certainly impedes; whereas riding on the tube in London or the bus in L.A is not generally a social space in which you expect or wish to converse with those sat beside you. In fact, in London, at least, you are meant to strenuously avoid noticing that that there is anyone around you at all, even if your face is shoved into someone’s armpit, shaven or otherwise.
So: is it rude to apply lipstick at the table? I say yes. On the other hand she is the bloody Queen and, though I’m no royalist, I rather love that she didn’t give a fuck.
Consider this post, then, the written equivalent of applying my lipstick at the dining room table. I taught Gulliver’s Travels this week; maybe I’m channeling Swift’s uncomfortably close-up vision of feminine toileting in Book 2. So have I destroyed for you, gentle readers, any feminine mystique I once possessed? Frankly I’m not sure there was all that much to begin with. As my colleague observed: the veil of mystery has already been lifted; it’s too late for that.