By: Nanditha Pillai
“What does ‘try’ even mean?” I asked from across the table at Panera.
My friends were talking about the few times they had actually “tried” that year in school.
My friend looked at me with an expression of mingled disbelief and exasperation.
“It means wear makeup, do your hair, wear cute clothes,” she said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Right,” I replied, and took a bite out of my sandwich.
A year later, my friend met a guy she liked. She’d been talking to him for a couple weeks, and they decided to meet up. The night before, our group chat was active for hours as she sent pictures of three different outfits, only for each to be minutely dissected, the merits and disadvantages of each thoughtfully pointed out. The next day, she showed up to her date, no doubt having spent hours getting ready. He showed up simply wearing jeans and a t-shirt. It could not have taken more than fifteen minutes to put together.
Similarly, I’d heard about another girl who showed up to her first date also having meticulously prepared before. After all, this is pretty standard practice for many women. Her date showed up in sweats.
It’s not just in the social world of casual dating that this discrepancy in “effort” exists. It was also talked about in the world of high school speech and debate.
At my high school, our speech-and-debate team was ranked as a top-twenty team nationwide. Needless to say, the activity was taken very seriously by its participants and the competition was fierce. Students practiced tirelessly at meetings multiple times a week, would spend hours at home perfecting their cases with their partners or honing their speeches. Early Saturday morning, the steps outside the front gates of our school would be covered in students donning stiff suits, sometimes before the sun had even risen, reciting tongue-twisters that would help them warm up and ending with the team’s motto.
For a subset of Dougherty Valley’s speech and debate team, however, there were even more requirements.
“I’ll wake up an hour before we have to leave,” a student told me, “to straighten my hair and do my makeup and then I’ll see my brother wake up ten minutes before we have to go. It’s so annoying,” she sighed.
Despite having to walk continuously, sometimes across large college campuses to find classrooms for one’s rounds, and then having to stand up to present one’s speech or one’s case, many of the girls also wore heels.
All this, and they were still criticized. The same girl whose brother rolled out of bed ten minutes before they were supposed to arrive on the school steps also had a judge write as a critique that her skirt length was inappropriately short, barely even mentioning her content.
Most people will tell you that appearance does matter to some extent. It’s important to look neat, family has told me. It’s important to put in the effort to look “professional,” a word that often carries with it classist, racist and sexist legacies. And in a culture that prides itself on the neverending “hustle,” effort is what imbues value more than natural advantages. A seemingly noble sentiment, at first glance. Until it becomes abundantly clear that the definition of “effort” has different meanings for different groups of people.
For non-femme-identifying individuals, “effort” often looks like a button-up shirt, cologne, and maybe some hair gel. For women, “effort” is usually far more complicated, not to mention expensive.
For many women “effort” means drawers cluttered with innumerable cosmetic products. It often means that their bare face is little more than a blueprint, to be filled in, smoothed out and enlivened with colorful powders ironically meant to emulate a natural flush, when a natural flush clearly was never enough. For many women, it means divesting oneself of all hair below the lower lash line through various means such as plucking, pruning, and ripping the hair off one’s skin. It means more categories of clothing than there are fingers on my hands, shoes that appear to put some species to shame in its diversity. The options alone can be exhausting.
For many women, though, putting on makeup is prized time with themselves and a fulfilling expression of their personalities as well as art. For many women, the “getting ready” process is a memorable and nostalgic one, of times spent with friends or family before an important event such as a school dance or a wedding, a time spent in communion with other women, bonding and engaging in a culture that seems uniquely theirs.
However, the problem arises when spending time on one’s appearance moves away from the realm of choice into an expectation. An expectation that pressures someone into feeling that if they want to be in a relationship, if they want to win a debate, if they want to land a job–all scenarios in which compatibility and companionship, the strength of one’s argument, and one’s qualifications and experience are most relevant, respectively—then they need to not only spend time and energy on cultivating a specific appearance, but also do it to a greater extent than their male partner, their male opponent, or their male colleague might.
There are definitely people who still don’t spend that much time on their appearance, but the pressure still exists. I, for one, never straightened my hair for a tournament and exclusively wore flats and I was certainly not the only one who did. I also never wear makeup in my day-to-day life. However, not a single day goes by when I don’t think about the perceived inadequacy of my outward presentation, leading to a CVS haul this past winter break, where I spent a hundred dollars on makeup that lay relatively untouched and unopened in my bathroom drawers. It’s why every couple weeks, I’ll force myself to watch a makeup tutorial, even though I’ve already tuned out after the first thirty seconds, and will leave having retained almost no information.
The problem arises when the time one spends on one’s appearance becomes entwined with character. Because that’s what happens when straightening your hair or curling your lashes is called “putting in effort” or “trying.” Not because it isn’t effort–I feel nothing short of pure exhaustion after an hour spent flat-ironing my thick, Indian hair–but because the implication is then that not straightening one’s hair, not wearing makeup, wearing t-shirts and sweats because they’re comfortable and feel most expressive of your style—is the opposite of effort, is the opposite of trying. In essence, that it’s lazy. And in our capitalist, work-ethic obsessed world, that is a condemnation that is more than skin-deep. And there-in lies the paradox. In a culture that often preaches self-love and acceptance, we still unintentionally use language that ascribes certain values to certain behaviors, thereby condemning other behaviors, or the lack of those behaviors. We can preach self-acceptance all we want, but every time we label one choice as “effort,” we’re labeling everyone who makes a different choice lazy, or careless. The decisions one makes with one’s appearance should be intrinsically motivated, because the activity brings genuine joy and fulfillment, not to prove our characters.
So, yes, many people do put in a lot of effort into the way they look, but emphasizing “effort” alone, identifying an entire set of activities as “trying,” not only gives it a superior moral connotation in a work-obsessed world, it also highlights the cumbersome, chore-like quality of the activity. It’s also a form of modesty, deflecting compliments from one’s person by emphasizing all of the outside work it took to create the effect. By replying with, “thank you, I tried,” to “you look beautiful,” still reflects archaic notions of modesty. While on the one hand it acknowledges the reality of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into outward presentation, it also creates a link between looking beautiful and going out of one’s way to change oneself. If “I tried” is a modest attempt to explain one’s beauty, then it can also be interpreted that the “trying” is then the direct cause of the beauty.
It’s a complicated question with no easy answer, but I think the first step is to acknowledge the time and effort that goes into certain activities by simply stating it in factual terms. For example, instead of “I tried today,” maybe just say “this took me thirty minutes.” The difference may not seem noticeable, but this way, reality is acknowledged—it was a time-consuming process—but it lacks the judgement inherent in the first statement. Sometimes in our effort to simplify our language, we forget that words are loaded with connotations and cultural baggage, and in the process of jamming a series of steps into the one word “try,” we sum our behavior in that one word and with all of that word’s existing connotations in our culture.
Perhaps this is a good opportunity for us, as a society, to rethink our relationship to “effort.” Many have already spoken out about the harmful effects of “hustle” culture on mental health, but effort is still deeply embedded in our culture as one of the most important virtues. We use it as a metric to measure quality, to assign value, to decide how meaningful or impressive something is. As we move, as a culture, towards acceptance and inclusivity, not only of others, but also when it comes to ourselves, we need to question the concept of “effort” and the role it plays in informing all of our actions. But that will no doubt take time. And in the meantime, we can take small steps towards that larger cultural reevaluation by taking note of our everyday language and making more conscientious choices with our words, because language matters.
So the next time you spend thirty minutes getting ready for something, if you spend thirty minutes getting ready for something, I hope you do it because the process brings you joy, and not out of an obligation or because you equate effort with quality or effort with self-worth. After all, effort is never so hard when motivated out of enjoyment as it is when motivated out of expectation.