While it would be impossible to deny that too much attention is put on women’s appearance, I still find it overly cynical to write off “you look great” as a violation, as my fellow Sisterhood contributor Elana Maryles Sztokman wrote in recent post.
Elana explains that the common use of this phrase among girlfriends reveals a deep-seated instinct of women to scrutinize one another to see how they measure up. For her, being told she “looks great” can mean she didn’t look great before. Or it can mean that looking great is the only thing that matters.
Well for starters, where I come from, Los Angeles, a place where good looks are paramount, the real mean girls, or frenemies or whatever you call these competitive jealous types, most certainly do not gratuitously throw around this phrase. Instead, the better a friend looks, the longer and more profound the silence. When somebody does say, “you look great,” it is a real sign of confidence and camaraderie.
I also think that a “you look great” coming from the people I consort with (and I imagine those Elana consorts with as well) is usually more of a holistic appraisal, one that implies a sense of happiness and ease rather than a deflated waist or a fresh set of highlights.
That said, I think we have to be careful when we dismiss any attention to or acknowledgment of outer appearance as a waste of time. Statements like that draw lines in the feminist sandbox, borders that ultimately turn more women away from our cause than attract them to it. Many women, young and old, know that beauty and brains are not necessarily a zero-sum game, including those that fight hard for gender equality.
Personally, I don’t know too many women who have been sucked in wholesale to the fashion industrial complex. Instead, they tend to take a more à la carte approach. Some love a manicure but abhor heels, while others might hate leaving the house without eyeliner but never bother to blow their hair. I, for instance, am not big into polished nails, perfect eyebrows, or facials, but I do love a good haircut, and feel really good in a pretty new dress. (For the record, I tried the alternative. I went vegan, hippy minimalist during my first few years of college — mostly as a rebellion against my upbringing. It was not fun. And I will never forget the day when I broke this fashion fast with a pair of Marc Jacobs flats at Neiman Marcus with my mom. True exhilaration.)
Yes, me at a Planned Parenthood rally with said Marc Jacobs flats and my fancy salon cut does make my feminist identity a bit messier, a bit more unpredictable. But I think it is also a sign of progress.
In response to the “30 Rock” episode about a feminist blog, Salon’s Rebecca Traister wrote:
The fact that there is hypocrisy in feminist criticism – and more maddeningly, that there are knots having to do with beauty, sexuality, comedy, respect, desirability, power and representation that will simply not come cleanly undone no matter how sharp a nail we take to them – does not mean that the criticism is invalid, or that we should stop worrying the knots, or that our struggles on both fronts should be exempt from mockery. Jezebel does publish smart feminist content at the same time it publishes snarky items that might appear in more traditional women’s magazines. So does Salon. Tina Fey has made huge, feminist strides for women in comedy at the same time that she has made comedy at the expense of women. Such is life when you attempt – as we all should! – to bring gender criticism out of the pure ether of sociopolitical discourse and attempt to deploy it in the real, messy world of commerce, consumption and popular culture.(emphasis mine)
I think when we speak about “looking great,” we need to remember the same thing.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
Go Ahead — Tell Me I ‘Look Great’