Women struggling beneath the burden of beauty

Justine Toh on the work that being a woman involves.

The story goes that Sophia Loren once recommended that women, when at home, should stick a piece of tape in between their eyes to discourage them from frowning. If their brow should furrow the tape would tug at the skin and, given enough grief, frown lines would soon follow.

When one of the sultriest screen sirens of the 20th century doles out beauty advice, it takes a confident woman not to reach for the sticky tape. Or—today’s equivalent—book a Botox appointment.

Not all women go to great lengths in pursuit of beauty. Still, it remains that on the whole, we want to look good. And so for many women, this is the start of a lifelong love-hate relationship with one’s body and looks. Hate, because looking good involves a lot of hard work. But also love because, let’s face it, there’s a feel-good factor to it all. One woman put it this way: “the payoff is addictive: numbers, compliments, dates.”

However, that’s not the whole story. The woman, calling herself ‘Unhappy Swan’, wrote in to Cary Tennis, advice columnist for Salon.com, confessing that despite the high she received from male attention, she hated it because of what she had to go through to get it. In her words: “a lot of hard work and insanely careful attention to my diet and appearance” that involved fairly painful plastic surgery on her nose and teeth, as well as a daily grind of 3-4 hours of applying makeup, doing her hair, counting calories and eating healthily, exercising, and general grooming.

No wonder Naomi Wolf called beauty the “third shift” worked by women—squashed in between one of paid work and another of unpaid domestic work for the family. Clearly, nothing but powernaps for you, if you want to be pretty, which is somewhat sadistic since the beauty advice I hear so often involves getting a good night’s sleep.

For ‘Unhappy Swan’, looking good not only involved a lot of physical exhaustion but much stress. Her confessional letter told all: she was sure life was more than about looks, and she despised the way she increasingly based her worth, and that of others, on appearance. But she wasn’t too keen on relaxing her punishing beauty regime either, because that caused her self-worth to plummet. She also found the quantity and quality of the guys pursuing her dropped. So, she was stuck working on herself… indefinitely.

Of course, the payoff delivered by looking good isn’t limited to attracting men. It can also be good for one’s career. We’ve heard Catherine Hakim proclaim that since men are mad for sex, women should maximise their ‘erotic capital’ and show a bit of leg to advance themselves in the workplace. And a recent study reports that women who wear (natural-looking, not too dramatic) makeup are regarded as more capable, likeable, and trustworthy—the perfect employee, in other words.

Carina Garland, who teaches gender and cultural studies at Sydney University, criticised the study for its implicit condemnation of the “wrong kind of femininity” expressed through brash makeup. But she conceded that the study revealed the “burden of femininity”—the pressures on women to appear a certain way in order to be taken seriously, to look after their appearance, to look good, to be accepted by others. Not to mention all the work it takes to pull this off.

Agonising over one’s looks and appearance often morphs into a fraught relationship with one’s self-worth. How could it not? Women are constantly encouraged, cajoled and bullied into linking their value with their appearance—by the media, by cultural expectations of gender, by other women and by men.

After all, we rarely hear that a woman is “worth it” unless that platitude is pinned to an advertisement designed to sell her beauty products. And if looking good is the product of hard work (for the genetically less favoured, anyway) then shouldering the burden of femininity means you’re going to have to get used to working overtime.

If a woman doesn’t want to work on herself indefinitely and hold herself forever accountable to the tyranny of gender expectations, where can she turn? Feminism is an obvious answer and through hard-won battles and in the face of significant opposition it’s yielded game-changing results that have benefited both women and men over the last 40 years. I myself am a product of its success.

But what about also considering Jesus? Before you bolt, I’m talking the man, not the religion that sprouted from his life and works, which has at times had a very troubled relationship with women—and that’s putting it lightly. But Jesus himself is a different matter entirely. He didn’t treat women according to the reigning cultural rules of 1st century Palestine.

Jesus’ interactions with women recorded in the gospels were scandalously unconventional

Jesus’ interactions with women recorded in the gospels were scandalously unconventional. In one case, he let a disreputable woman publicly massage oil into his feet and dry them with her hair as a gesture of love and devotion. Respectable rabbis just didn’t do that.

But it’s Jesus’ interaction with a woman named Martha that I’m most interested in because it suggests that he’s not going to add to the burden of femininity women carry—but instead offer to relieve it.

When Jesus dines at Martha’s house, his gracious host ends up rushing around preparing everything for the evening meal. She snaps at her sister Mary for not lending a hand but instead sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching—itself highly unusual for a woman in such a male-dominated culture. But Jesus rebukes Martha, telling her that her work leaves her ‘distracted and worried by many things’ and that Mary has ‘chosen the better part’.

Often, this story is served up as a cautionary tale against the kind of (female) busyness that can drive one to distraction. There’s something in that. But too often, the issue is framed as though (mostly Type A-personality) women are just frantically busy for the sake of it. Scant attention is paid to the social pressures encouraging women to link their inner value with their outward performance.

Such pressures drive many women to ‘look good’—whether that’s through being the perfect hostess (Martha) or taking scrupulous care of their appearance (‘Unhappy Swan’). Also omitted is women’s ambivalence about their roles and the expectations placed on them—on which women thrive one minute and struggle with the next. Witness the traces of both in Martha’s cry: ‘Don’t you care about all this work I’m doing for you? Don’t you?’

On the surface, Jesus’ rebuke looks as though he is denigrating what might euphemistically be called ‘woman’s work’ (Naomi Wolf’s ‘second shift’) in favour of what’s really important: spending time with him. But he has an atypical response for this Type A superwoman. Jesus neither devalues nor validates Martha’s ‘female’ role but invites her to take up his ‘better’ option by joining Mary at his feet.

In doing so, he slices cleanly through Martha’s assessment of her own worth—a worth that in her eyes at least, is at one with her hard work. Author Joanna Weaver puts it this way in her book Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World:

“In Martha’s outburst, Christ could see a fault line that ran deep down the woman’s psyche, down to where her identity lay. Martha thought she had value because she was productive. Jesus wanted her to learn she had value simply because she was his” (Weaver 2000: 138).

Jesus understood, it seems, that push-pull, love-hate relationship that Martha felt with the demands her culture made of her as a woman. He saw how her role equally energised and oppressed her, and how better off she’d be locating her identity, calling and purpose in him.

Admittedly, this story in Luke’s gospel is made up of five brief verses—possibly a shaky scaffold to build such a thesis on. But New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III argues that the gospel regarded the believer as a ‘new creation’ in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), no longer bound and limited to hierarchical categories of gender, ethnicity and social class (Galatians 3:28). From this perspective, Jesus was not just calling Martha; he was calling her out of the social role she was expected to fulfil (Witherington 1984: 103).

Martha’s endless work fulfilling her ‘female’ role was how she ‘looked good’, and that will still be familiar to women of today. But in the some 2000 years between Martha and me, the ways in which a woman might ‘look good’ has grown. Fulfilling a ‘traditional’ role is no longer the only game.

‘Looking good’ is also about being professionally successful, beautiful, fertile, thin, a supermum, and sexually attractive to boot—see just some of the pressures weighing on Sarah Jessica Parker in her new movie I Don’t Know How She Does It. More demands keep getting heaped on the plate of the average woman, and it’s easy to locate one’s worth in any one of these extra helpings.

Jesus’ offer to Martha is the same offer he makes to women today: to come and rest with him, free from oppressive gender roles and the endless pressure to perform and ‘look good’. After all, he says his ‘yoke is easy and his burden light’. It’s nice work if you can get it—except for the fact that there’s no work to do at all.

Justine Toh is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.

This article orginally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal.