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Who Gets to Be Low-Maintenance?

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Because it’s definitely not everyone.

Photo: Instagram

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It’s been a big couple of years for the low-maintenance woman. From the proliferation of athleisure brands to self-love campaigns, like Alicia Keys’ much-blogged-about #nomakeup manifesto or any number of Dove ads, to a rash of songs whose muses don’t yet recognize their fresh-faced beauty, it can seem like women are finally getting the long-overdue break from oppressive appearance-related demands that we deserve. And especially in this political climate, facing constant threats to our reproductive rights under a president who has bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women, the rejection of historically patriarchal instruments like mascara and high heels in popular culture should be an empowering straw at which to grasp. Shouldn’t it?

Maybe not just yet. More options are always a good thing, if that’s what they truly are. But in our rush toward the kind of bra- and master-less utopia promised by second-wave feminists, we’ve become quick to sing the praises of “natural,” “real” women who have (or appear to have — more on that later) abandoned cosmetics or Louboutins while ascribing vanity, desperation, and dishonesty to women who continue employing tools like weaves, shapewear, or a heavy contour (take her swimming on the first date, amirite?). Aside from ignoring the fact that many women find strength and joy expressing themselves through clothing and makeup, the cult of low-maintenance-ness fails to examine the authenticity of its own aesthetics and to interrogate who can and can’t move safely and fairly through the world without such accoutrements.

Multi-platinum singer/songwriter Alicia Keys, for instance, may be financially secure enough to go proudly makeup-less and wear her hair however she pleases — but can the same be said for black women without such celebrity, when white employers are still so quick to dub natural black hair “unprofessional”? Kristen Stewart has gained praise for her “no fucks given” look, but what about plus-size women who feel compelled to compensate for their presumed laziness with clothing intended to at least minimize the amount of thinly veiled or explicitly discriminatory nonsense they’re forced to deal with on a daily basis? Women with disabilities, for whom lipstick or a push-up bra may make the difference between being treated their age, and being continually infantilized or denied a sexual identity? Trans women, when they (whatever their personal aesthetic ideals) are required to present themselves as thoroughly femme so as to “pass,” avoid harassment, use the bathroom that matches their gender without conflict, or reduce their chances of being killed?

In a shocking turn of events, the beneficiaries of this particular “liberation” are slim, white, able-bodied cis women — and occasionally women like Keys, who possess the proximity to Eurocentric beauty ideals (think Keys’ light skin, narrow nose, and curves in the “right” places) and/or other resources that allow them to bypass at least a certain amount of the bullshit.

Similarly, it’s important to acknowledge that images of the “low-maintenance” woman can be as contrived as any Kardashian-Jenner selfie. Can Aerie’s non-retouched ads live up to their #real reputation when they cast almost exclusively models under a size six? What about the army of hair, makeup, and lighting pros on set, or the unflattering outtakes that don’t end up on Times Square billboards? Did the messy buns worn in that new athletic campaign actually require a tutorial and two different hairsprays to achieve? Is that actress makeup-free in her latest Elle spread, or is she just wearing the “no-makeup makeup look”? The latter, which necessitates a non-trivial amount of work and product, is perhaps the clearest evidence that this supposed cultural shift isn’t necessarily about celebrating what comes natural to the everywoman after all; it’s instead a fresh aspirational marketing opportunity, with its own level of exclusivity and must-have accessories, that congratulates and bestows virtue upon already conventionally attractive and otherwise privileged people.

Both through our assumptions that the “low-maintenance” images permeating our social media feeds are the result of genuine effortlessness (and are therefore replicable without a makeup artist or cash to drop on a draped cashmere cardigan that just screams “hygge”) and by vilifying women who use tools like Spanx or relaxers to navigate a racist, ableist, cis-sexist, fat-phobic, and overall looks-obsessed world, we continue reinforcing the same old notion of “do it perfectly, but don’t let them see you sweat” that women have been contending with forever. This latest iteration may be cleverly packaged in a time of increasingly commodifiable “feminism,” but when the same narrow cross-section of people is still reaping a movement’s rewards, one wonders how much of a movement it can really be considered at all.