By Ella Sheddick

Margaret Atwood once wrote that every woman has a man inside her watching herself. Every action that we take, even privately, even in the comfort of our own home, is subject to our own internal male gaze. We are always performing femininity. We propagate the very belief system that imprisons us.

This idea terrifies me, for a lot of reasons. The main one is that I know it’s true. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the extent to which my physical appearance dictates my mental wellbeing. There’s a running joke in my friendship group that whenever I’m hungover, I always put on the cutest, most Sidgwick-worthy outfit. Somehow, the hangover goes away. Eyeliner boosts my mood in a way that is reliably terrifying. 

But, the thing is the correlation between external appearance and internal wellbeing is not just in my head. My friends don’t tell me I’m looking happy, they tell me my skin is glowing. Being told I look tired is code for you didn’t remember to conceal your under eyes this morning. I’m guilty of a similar perspective towards my friends: if somebody’s crying over a failed romantic prospect, my first response is almost always well, you’re way too hot for them anyway.

“Eyeliner boosts my mood in a way that is reliably terrifying. “

Fine, you might say. It makes sense that people tend to feel happier when they’re looking better. The issue for me comes when acts of self-care are equated with acts of beautification. Putting on a facemask always features in lists of calming or stress-releasing activities. Watch any TikTok that mentions the word self-care and you’ll witness an endless cycle of nail-painting, skin-rolling, and green-smoothie-drinking. Self-care for women is, in popular culture, equated to the maintenance of femininity.

In fact, self-care is increasingly being presented as a way of performing femininity on TikTok or Instagram. Endless videos of day-in-the-lives or get-ready-with-mes make self-care an aesthetic, one rooted in beautiful thought journals, smoothie bowls and matching loungewear sets. Sometimes this worries me. I catch myself trying to make the ramblings I scribble in a notebook pretty, or focusing more on making the food I eat visually appealing, than nutritious. 

Still, there is nothing inherently wrong with femininity and the performance of femininity functioning as a form of relaxation. Femininity can be a powerful source of self-identity and confidence. It is for me. My number one form of destressing is an “everything shower”: the calming ritual of deep conditioning my hair, scrubbing my pores and shaving my legs. Wearing makeup makes me more confident to speak out in supervision.  I choose to relax and express myself in this way.

But, whenever I do, I get a niggling voice in the back of my head. A voice that is the very opposite of my internal male gaze. A voice that questions me, yes, this does make you feel better, but why? Is shaving your legs a ritual because it’s an inherently relaxing and mood-boosting action for you, or is it soothing because you’re conforming? Why can a bad day be made better with makeup? Is it really because you like the ritual? Or is it because perfecting femininity appeals to the man in your brain? This voice, perhaps, is Margaret Atwood once again taunting me that “Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy.”

Amia Srinivasan has argued that the emergence of choice feminism in the 1980s, has made it unfashionable to tell women that their choices are being conditioned. Instead, as feminists, we are told to respect every woman’s right to choose. But, as Srinivasan has pointed out, this creates a situation in which women have often stopped questioning why they want to choose certain activities. It’s taken as a universal fact that makeup is empowering, and we often fail to interrogate why our sources of power and relaxation are rooted in male appeal.

“This voice, perhaps, is Margaret Atwood once again taunting me that “Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy.”

A similar phenomenon can be seen on social media. Criticising the ways in which women practice or project self-care is impossible to do without coming across as anti-feminist or jealous. Although, this is not a suggestion to start critiquing people’s choices and doubting women’s intentions of making themselves feel good. I do, however, think it is time we start questioning the feelings that inform our own choices.

I can’t answer the niggling voice’s questions. I also can’t block out the vision of the man watching in my head. However, the voice in my head does make me more conscious of my choices, makes me question whether I’m practicing self-care or simply performing it. It challenges me to find ways to relax that are not, in some way, a performance. But it also prompts to acknowledge and accept those that are. We can’t live in this world without being affected by it. Whatever informs them, these self-care practices still make me happy. So I’ll keep dressing up after a night out at revs and annoying my flatmates with how long I’m in the shower. But I won’t shut out Margaret’s questioning voice.

Featured Image Credit: ChibiChiDesign

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: