For someone who’s never had a baby, I know a hell of a lot about “baby weight.” After Jessica Simpson gave birth to her first child in 2012, she was criticized publicly for how much weight she’d gained during pregnancy; the news cycle speculated so obsessively over Simpson’s body and potential “bounce back” that it inspired a Jezebel story cataloging 109 of the worst headlines. “Despite battle to lose 70 pounds, Jessica Simpson binges on birthday brownies,” wrote the Examiner; “Jessica Simpson is Working Her Way Back to Her Daisy Dukes,” wrote OK! How ghastly! Ack! The lady had put on too many pounds after, lord have mercy, bringing a real human life into the world. And after she admitted that her body was “not bouncing back like a supermodel,” Simpson, then 31, worked extra hard to get herself back into fighting form. Drew Barrymore admitted to the same disgrace recently: putting on 20 pounds when she’d been going through a divorce. “I had sort of let myself go,” she said.
When a woman concedes to letting herself go, she rings the death knell of her valued contributions to society. Letting yourself go by putting on weight, not wearing makeup, eating buttered Pop Tarts, deciding to wear clothes that are fit for comfort instead of style, is the equivalent of saying the morally accepted standards of beauty and presentability do not apply to you. And this is unacceptable. One of my favorite photographs (below) is from the premiere of Hotel Transylvania 2. In it, Kevin James and Adam Sandler flank Selena Gomez, who is dressed in a ruby-red tube dress with a cutout at her abs, a slit up to her pelvis. Her face is done up. Her fingernails and toenails are painted. James and Sandler, on the other hand, are dressed in T-shirts and sweats, sneakers. If Gomez had dressed like them that night, it would have raised a lot of eyebrows. If she had been the same age as either actor and done the same, she would have been laughed off the red carpet. How dare any woman decide what beauty standards she’d like to live by? How dare any woman don sweatpants for the gala?
Being a woman is a little like putting on a pair of tight shoes at birth and then not taking them off until you die. Sometimes those tight shoes are five-inch heels. Sometimes you are forced to wear them on the wrong feet. And most of the time, those shoes — the ones you didn’t even volunteer to wear — cost a lot of freaking money. Being appropriately contained and packaged is one of the many things culture demands of women — whether in how we speak, how we act, how we dress, or how we age — and so we have a hard time reconciling women like Cherry Jones’s devil-may-care character in the third season of Black Mirror, or Jessica Simpson’s baby weight, or Alicia Keys vowing to stop wearing makeup. These women have allowed themselves to age, to unbuckle the belts cinching their waists, to protest beauty routines, to resist wrinkle-reducing procedures, to put on a pair of comfortable tennis shoes. Ones that fit. These women act outside of a system that aims to contain us physically, and it drives people crazy.
Women have lived within the framework of beauty, thinness, and appropriate etiquette for centuries. The procedure of putting on makeup, doing our hair, opting to squeeze into jeans that don’t fit, feels natural, invisible, largely because we’ve been brought up with the knowledge that in order to succeed, we must fall in line. In adolescence, young women are expected to feel shame about menstruation; in college, female students are blamed for drinking too much; in the workplace, special attention is paid to women who look polished — but not too polished. Studies show that women who wear makeup at work are seen as more competent than women who don’t. The life of a woman is one of great and perpetual constraint. Why else would Spanx have been invented if it weren’t?
But however much we try to keep up appearances, biology inevitably gets in the way. Whether we decide to have children, or start to show signs of age, the world begins to see us differently. Our bodies shift, we wear looser-fitting clothes, our hair goes gray, our breasts sag. A woman at this stage of life, as they say, has let herself go. She has given up on her societal responsibility to appear forever desirable to others, much to the offense of those around her.
To let oneself go is not something that happens behind closed doors — it’s an infringement on those who must observe your decline. The loose flannels, the obvious wrinkles, the unplucked chin hairs, the unmanicured fingers, the public denial of participating in the feminine industrial complex. Women’s appearances must be perfect and without seams; women must never let anyone know how hard they are working to appear “normal.”
A year before she died, Carrie Fisher tweeted about aging: “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments. They are the temporary, happy bi-products of time and/or DNA. Don’t hold your breath for either.” If you think you could possibly stave off aging forever, you’ve got another thing coming. But instead, you could start letting yourself go right now.
Wouldn’t it be nice, instead of concerning ourselves every morning with the most flattering shirt to wear or putting aside extra cash to dye our hair, if we wore the shirt we wanted to and the one that felt good? And we put that extra cash toward a bowl of chili on a cold winter evening? And when we wanted to “be cozy,” we just were cozy. Or we didn’t put Spanx on under our bridesmaid dresses because the shape of our bodies is just that: the shape of our bodies. Why shouldn’t we? Letting go sounds great.
Letting myself go means I can eat chicken wings at my leisure and my pants don’t constrict my crotch. I’m not worried that my hair is thinning, that my thighs are thicker than when I was a teenager. My eyebrows aren’t always clean, and haven’t grown back to their original, 12-year-old shape, but they’re eyebrows — they literally serve a net-even function. I am healthy and happy, and dress up on the rare occasion when I feel like it. I wore a pair of maternity jeans for several months before knowing the difference. Body positivity may be wonderful, but freedom from the fear of growing older is even better.