The Unfortunate Concept of Woman as Reward
A lament about weddings and status, and how just by virtue of being a woman, you may already be a trophy.
Imagine the scene: the woman is portly, unshaven; older, slightly disheveled, past prime. A man is with her. The man is tanned orange, with hair bleached, skin unnaturally taut in places despite being much younger than the woman; painfully thin, a combination of workouts (fueled by plenty of leisure time) and an intense diet (fueled by a bank account that can afford the best food). His body is slightly disfigured by surgical procedures to enhance various parts of it. He’s dressed to reveal most of it.
The woman has worked her whole life in a grueling career, slaving away in offices until early morning, maybe working a schedule that resulted in early divorce and estrangement from first marriage children. Yet all that dedication and aggression and pure verve deserves some sort of reward, some indication of Having Made It. Hence the muscled and shining young man on her arm.
This is role reversal. As I stand as a security officer in the galleries of an art museum, I watch couples go by. Some don’t catch my attention, and these are the best kinds of visitors: those so well behaved you don’t even take note of their presence. But every once and a while, you see the rambling old Wall Street executive, strolling along in a polo shirt, a young Barbie with huge fake boobs on his arm. You never see the reverse.
I not only noticed this phenomenon during my day job, but also while planning my own wedding. Everyone wanted to know what I was going to wear — and most importantly, what I was going to do to make sure that I could fit into it. Would I run half marathons? Would I get a gym membership? How much — or how little — was I eating?
I commuted via bike, which was something I’d been doing for a few years, yet I still bought a Nutribullet. I bought into it. I replaced a lot of solid foods with smoothies made with kale and cucumber and the like. And it was nasty. The smoothies made me remember how much I enjoyed the primordial, visceral act of eating solid foods. So I binged on ice cream and squeezed into my dress. As our photos were being taken, I remember how my bouquet was strategically placed to hide my tummy.
All this stress, all these prying questions. Yet my then-fiancé heard nothing. No one wanted to know about his suit. A shame, because it was lovely, and he still wears it. No one wanted him to start a new, intense fitness regime. No one expected him to have a flat stomach in his wedding photos. To his credit, he used the Nutribullet, too (and we still do, to be fair, just not as often).
All the pressure was on me. And I notice the same thing happening to other engaged women. Gyms, diets, discipline, an awful lot of time. But the men just show up, no matter how much of a belly bulges over their belts.
The wedding industry preys upon the conventional yearnings of suburbia, the standards of high society, and the vulnerabilities of young women. It’s not about loving someone as much as it’s about comparing yourself to the lithe models in bridal magazines that can seemingly snake into any dress, and spending an ungodly amount of money to emulate them.
We realized this too late. I think if we could do it over, we’d elope. At least in the photos of our reception, where there is no bouquet hiding my tummy while we’re dancing — a tummy that’s pretty bloated from an open bar and beloved friends bringing me glass after glass, dancing like we used to in our pajamas, in our tiny dorm rooms in college — I’ll remember having too good a time, which had nothing to do with my appearance. You don’t need extravagance, couture, or toned arms for a drunken party.
See, I have to look good, because I am the acquired property. I need to reassure my husband that he’s acquiring a winner who will increase his standing amongst his male peers.
This has been marriage for most of recorded civilization.
My husband was particularly gorgeous that day. He chose each item he wore meticulously. He had started working out with resistance bands in our apartment. He wasn’t eating gluten. He glowed.
What an insult to him that so few took notice.
I didn’t take his last name. I see no point. My marriage does not signify an exchange of property. I am my own owner: of all my art supplies, fuzzy slippers, and student loan debt. I am neither an acquisition nor a loss. Marrying me does not mean receiving a reward for being an economic success. I am not the lovely entity who, at the end of your exhausting and suited workday, brings you a Manhattan.
I live in New York City in the twenty first century. My husband and I are artists, and he makes his own damn cocktails.
You see it throughout pop culture. You see it in movies, and to an alarming extent in video games. You see it exiting from cars in Manhattan or L.A., and wandering around the galleries where I work. You see it in the most supposedly progressive areas. When a man is successful, or popular, or even just a good next-door-neighbor kind of guy — the affable contemporary Everyman — he deserves a reward. Not riches, or vanquishing the bad guy, or even just recognition. No, he has to get the girl.
Finally established? Athletic or athlete? Big sword? Smart and witty? Built? Rich? You deserve a female.
And not just any female. Tall, protruding collarbones, thigh gap, the type of huge chest that doesn’t usually correspond with that B.M.I. Put her in a white dress and boom, you’ve got the models in those bridal magazines.
The problem I see with this is that no amount of money or sexually coveted companions can make you happy. No amount of long-term financial security, lush wardrobes, or personal trainers can put you at peace with yourself. It’s OK, for both sexes, to do what makes you happy and be comfortable with yourself, even if it doesn’t bring corporate paychecks, or ensure an Upper East Side address … or, more terrifyingly still, if it means putting on a few pounds of healthy weight.
Socioeconomic pressure. Sexual pressure. Social pressure. Cultural pressure. All these pressures. Both sexes cave under them, but the orange, bleached, skeletal woman is their public manifestation. Under various guises and regimens she has acted as such, for millennia all over the world, and I think it’s time for that to be over.
And I’m all for dressing well and being healthy, but that should be your own personal reward. But for now, I just want to make clear: a woman shouldn’t be a reward. The cheerleader shouldn’t be defined by her quarterback, the waiting girl by her deployed soldier, or the love interest by her hero. We live in a time when we, as women, can be proactive, and proactively control our own lives.
We live in a time where we can vocally assert women’s equality. Self-awareness and self-respect make this possible. It enables women to be candid about their equality, and men to acknowledge it. There are women who don’t want respect and men who are disrespectful no matter what. But self-awareness and self-respect can make anyone comfier in his or her own skin: happier, and less focused on the material forces that have driven, for example, the ancient concept of woman as exchanged property within marriage, and the modern wedding industry.
Maybe if we just have some drunken dance parties in our pajamas, we’d lose our inhibitions, forget conventional constraints, and make this blog post irrelevant.
(For anyone interested, my husband wore a warm pebble-colored lightly pinstriped linen suit [visible in image above] with a crisp white dress shirt, and a violet knit tie with coordinating socks. His shoes were a rich deep brown leather. He was clean-shaven and wore his contacts instead of glasses. And I’d love him just as much if he’d just have crawled out of a dump.)