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man-pleasing and feminism: how much is too much when it comes to “dressing for him”?

dressing for him
Former politician turned blogger, Louise Mensch likes to dress up for her husband. Saying so, she writes on her blog Unfashionista, is a feminist ‘mortal sin’. Op-eds jumped on that single comment in an interview with the Guardian. Her twitter feed and inbox were flooded with comments revoking her capital F feminist card.

Mensch, who moved from the UK to New York last year, took to her blog and addressed some of her critics. She argued that her attempt at keeping her husband happy by keeping groomed and well dressed wasn’t one-sided.

‘He lifted weights for me because I like muscles, and I thought it was an act of love for a husband and wife, who had committed to each other, to keep themselves looking as good as they can.’

She also scoffs at the idea that “man-pleasing” is a terrible, soul-sucking chore.

‘Most women want to be attractive to men. It doesn’t mean you do everything they say, even style-wise,’ Mensch writes on a post entitled, ‘What Men Want: Face’

The vitriol thrown Mensch’s way may have been harsh and (to a degree) reactionary. It’s a fine line between critiquing feminism and policing it, but for many, the concept of dressing up for one’s husband is decidedly un-feminist. Mensch sees nothing wrong with taking a man’s taste into account when getting dressed in the morning, but says her commitment to her husband’s preferences has a limit: she refuses to cut her hair, though he likes it short.

She concludes her post with tips on how to look natural while still wearing make-up because, ‘ask any guy’ and surely he’ll tell you that a woman in too much make-up is unattractive.

The problem isn’t Mensch’s feminism per se (which is hard to determine from a single blog post, even her entire site) but her advice is something women have been fed for generations. What makes women attractive to men, according to her and many before her, is completely shallow.  It doesn’t matter if you love your job, enjoy travelling, are a good friend, partner, mentor: can you apply make up to look like you’re wearing none at all?

Can you be a feminist and still aim to please a man, asks this headline.

Without venturing too much into a debate on good and bad feminism, even if women disregard Mensch’s advice on subtle eyeliner and BB cream, the most basic of women’s grooming habits are designed around the male gaze. Shaving and waxing are considered reasonable grooming but neither is any more necessary to our health than eyeliner. We have, in essence, been trying to please men since puberty, which is why Mensch’s comment didn’t have a prayer of going over well, especially among feminists.

There is an exhaustive list of rules to which women are expected to adhere in order to be considered feminine enough to attract male attention. Among the superficial things Mensch endorses (including wearing heels instead of flats because ‘your man wants to see you swing it’) we also have to worry about perfect hair, flat stomachs, and something called vocal-fry.

Men, too, are coached and instructed on what’s attractive to women and what they want.

No one likes to be told how to be and what they like and women certainly have enough to worry about besides the never-ending upkeep, which is likely why Mensch irked so many readers – not that she aims to look good for her husband but that a feminist was adding to the list of “rules”.

Should Mensch’s feminism be negated by her problematic relationship advice and affinity for make-up? No. In fact, a look through her blog and Mensch has plenty to say that many of her detractors might agree with (her slideshow celebrating women over 50 in a youth-obsessed culture, for one). But a distinction should be made between welcoming your partner’s unsolicited advice about your appearance to being actively concerned that your choices aren’t good enough for them.

There are only so many hours in the day worth spending trying to please someone who isn’t you.

4 thoughts on “man-pleasing and feminism: how much is too much when it comes to “dressing for him”?

  1. “What makes women attractive to men, according to her and many before her, is completely shallow.”
    And what makes Ryan Gosling attractive to women? His feminist views?.. I think female attraction to Ryan Gosling is shallow, just as with male attraction to women, but that’s the point. The concept of “attractive” is basically centered around the relative positions of your facial features and such conclusions are usually made within seconds of glancing at someone (as the practise of “checking someone out” would suggest).

    I’m not saying this is a morally good thing, just that it’s a thing, and I don’t think you can say it’s all superficially and culturally coached and instructed. I think that sort of thinking encourages a sense that you should feel guilty if you want to appear attractive to your partner – as if you’re just a vassal filled with oppressively bad ‘culture’ – when I can’t see how that desire, in of itself, would contradict broader feminist ideals such as the desire for gender equality.

    And while I don’t think Mensch is a feminist, I can’t help but feel her agency in seeking to explore notions of attractiveness and beauty within the confines of her relationship is being sidelined. Because “her advice is something women have been fed for generations” she is essentially expected to change her lifestyle and advice to feed the current generation.

  2. Thanks for reading, Chris.

    I didn’t see anything wrong with Mensch’s comment about wanting to look good for her husband. Maybe that wasn’t clear in my post so I’m clarifying now.

    My issue is with the follow-up advice that tells women to forget what they like – either because it’s more comfortable, practical etc. – because it’s not what men (all?) like. I’m not talking about unconscious physical attraction like facial symmetry (and to be honest, I’m suspicious of evolutionary-based theories of attraction) but beauty regimens that are superficial and learned. And as I mentioned, it goes both ways.

    I believe it’s possible to take part in these practices – and enjoy doing so – while acknowledging that much of it is unnecessary. I’m certainly not above checking people out.

  3. Hey Shannon, thanks for the response!

    “My issue is with the follow-up advice that tells women to forget what they like – either because it’s more comfortable, practical etc. – because it’s not what men (all?) like.”

    But doesn’t Mensch say “Most women want to be attractive to men. It doesn’t mean you do everything they say, even style-wise”? And, indeed, Mensch appears to be leveraging her attractiveness, or her desire to be attractive to her husband, in order to get what *she* wanted, which was for him to have more muscle. It implies that if he didn’t acquiesce and hit up the gym, she wouldn’t’ve acquiesced to his desires.

    Ultimately, however, I think our disagreements come from our markedly different views on evolutionary theory – if one thinks that notions of attractiveness are entirely the product of culture and media messages then they would find your argument more receptive than mine.

  4. I think, if I get you right that the cultural arts of making superficial beauty (the hair the make-up, the muscles, etc) are just that, artificial. But I go further than just to agree but also to an opinion that the superficial clouds attractiveness, fills women’s and men’s minds and emotions with all manner of confusions and near-fetish like corruptions of attractiveness. We have collectively commodified body image and the need to ‘be attractive’ and now cause ourselves so much pain following this culture. When we are attracted to someone none of that superficial is of any relevance – when attraction happens it is not the hair the make-up etc, the person can me a ‘mess’ and in filth and rags but the attraction will still happen – to greater effect since the superficial is stripped away leaving the true beauty of personhood in masculine and feminine form. Women and men delude ourselves/each other that superficial artifice, clothing, ornamentation can add to the core of our self – wisdom sees through this fallacy, so does LSD, so do two people sharing an intense mutual emotional experience – attractiveness is an emotionally and behaviourally mediated ‘thing’. Until we shed this culture/delusion feminism will not progress and patriarchy won’t release its possession of the diminished and objectified woman represented in the superficial form. ‘Culture is not your friend’

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