Clara Heffernan explores the potentially problematic elements of the self-love movement. For TWSS Issue #17 ‘Masks’.
“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
– Margaret Atwood
To live as a woman, some would argue, is a mask of its own. To constantly melt and remould oneself into the ‘right’ woman is the norm: smart enough in a job interview, but not so smart that you intimidate others; sexy enough on a date, but not so sexy you give ‘the wrong idea’; confident enough to be noticed, but modest enough to avoid criticism. The list goes on. Some masks are more ill-fitting than others, but they are disguises nonetheless. Thank goodness that ‘self-love’ is trending media-wide, throwing all these expectations out the window and encouraging a loud ’n’ proud declaration of pride and unashamed confidence! But is it ever really going to be that simple?
Artists such as Ariana Grande, Lizzo and Dua Lipa have popularised music with catchy lyrics championing self-care, independence and saying ‘Thank You, Next’ to any boys that may stand in your way. But are these confident messages simply another facet of performative femininity? To be tough and independent is arguably another mask we wear to preserve a facade of strength, despite being more vulnerable beneath the surface. Feminist artists such as Beyoncé are sex symbols, but are they performing for male approval, and is it wrong if they are? Or perhaps this is misguided as what they actually represent is sexual liberation? I am reminded of Emily Ratajkowski defining her instagram feed as a ‘sexy feminist magazine’, yet the beautifully airbrushed shots of her modelling her own swimsuit line seem to reinforce all the impossible expectations women are told to live up to. A key part of selling her bikinis seemed to be encouraging women to try to look more like her by wearing what she wears. On the other hand, is it better that a woman is profiting from female insecurity rather than a man? Is it wrong to shame Emily for posting pictures of herself that supposedly make her feel confident? There seems to be no solution that dismantles the complex network of patriarchal values while also granting women the autonomy they are entitled to. Atwood claims, ‘even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy’. If we take this to be true, what is left for women? The prognosis is dismal; misogyny has become so internalised that it is impossible to rid our own bodies of it; our masks cannot be removed.
As the consistent use of question marks throughout this article might imply, a complex issue such as internalised misogyny and the performativity attached to this has no simple answer. But one solution may be an uglier look at the reality of womanhood. Artists such as Polly Nor explore the demons within and surrounding women, or Bode Burnout, who depicts the reality of menstruation, body hair and mental health. To truly disregard all facades, being unapologetically unattractive seems to be a good place to start. ‘Self-care’ is not always the beautifully packaged, Urban-Outfitters-homeware vision that we are led to believe. Sometimes it is just getting out of bed, maybe having a shower, and taking a trip to Tesco’s for groceries. That might not be sexy or cute, but it is real and it is worthy of praise.
Artwork by Maegan Farrow.