I’m going to start off with some interconnected questions that I want you to think about for a few seconds. What does the term “letting yourself go” mean as it relates to the context of women after marriage and childbirth? What does it mean when men tell women that not because they might have birthed a child or married someone that they should not stop ‘dabbling around in makeup and treating themselves to shopping therapy?’ What constitutes our self and is that self tethered to materialism and aesthetics? Finally, what does it mean to be a woman in Guyanese society and how are we challenging or upholding the caricatures of womanhood set out for us?
As women, it is more than likely that many of us would have at some point in our lives been told that we are letting ourselves go, particularly when we begin tending to more traditional duties that exist within domestic life. The phrase is meant to tell a woman that by society’s dominant definition of how she should look, she is falling significantly far from the bar that was set for her.
We have come a long way in demolishing the set ideals of womanhood and the roles we are expected to play in the home and society but the work is far from done. This was seen when government propagandist and sexist apologizer, Gordon Moseley felt the need to tell women, particularly married women and mothers, that they should stop letting themselves go.
He claimed that he was “seeing way too many women letting themselves go after marriage or a child,” and urged them to “still dress and look good.” What that post and the comments stemming from it revealed, is a truth that has long been known, both men and women are complicit in the sexism that is perpetuated within society.
When he was called out for this sexist rhetoric, he claimed that the point of the post was being misunderstood and that those who objected were mere attention seekers. No one is saying that you cannot offer advice on things, even if you yourself are in no fit position to offer that advice. When one insinuates however, that a woman cannot truly be considered a woman if she does not fit certain ideals, then whatever good intentions one might have had has now been replaced by the insidious sexism ingrained within your psyche.
It might not have been his intent to belittle women for not conforming to beauty standards, but in a way, that makes it worse for me. It is men like this who feel they are ‘looking out’ for women but are in fact just apologizers for sexism who are a threat. They are so invested in the idea that they are doing good that they refuse to see how problematic their rhetoric and actions are and how it perpetuates harmful notions.
When he realized that persons refused to allow his sexism to pass, his line of defense began to run something like this, ‘Oprah said it, so can I.’ The piece he references does talk about women taking care of themselves yes, but Moseley’s context is entirely different, whether he meant it to be or not. The piece on which he so religiously bases his defense on does not insinuate that a woman’s worth or a woman taking care of herself is tantamount to wearing makeup, getting her hair done or even spending money.
Oprah’s main contention was that women should stop keeping themselves on the back burner. Firstly, Oprah is a woman using her platform to speak to women. Do not presume that you know enough about the struggles of the marginalized to tell them how they should be without taking in the structural and societal barriers to achieving those things.
Even if your intent is to encourage women to take better care of their selves, there is a way to do that. There is a way to tell women that they deserve to give themselves the same care and respect they might give to their families and loved ones. However, when that unasked for advice treads the ground of telling women to dress, go shopping and keep themselves “nicely groomed,” that is when I begin to question both your motives and intellectualism. When one is asked to ‘stay true to ourselves,’ is the only way to do that through defined gender aesthetics? I am a mother of one. On the surface, I have not entirely let myself go. But, I eat unhealthy, I never exercise and I don’t get enough sleep. These things are all very bad for me but no one tells me that I’m letting myself go because: One, I to some extent conforms to beauty standards. Two, anyone who knows me knows that they cannot tell me what sort of woman I should be and not be shot down for it because we as women are not here to satisfy the male gaze or to conform to ingrained ideas of femininity.