I was reading about this idea of “work uniform” yesterday, fascinated that people from Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg to Christine Lagarde and Vera Wang have all adopted a standard to their dress. As Matila Kahl, an ad executive who has worn the same outfit to work every day for the past three years, explained, “The simple choice of wearing a work uniform has saved me countless wasted hours thinking, “what the hell am I going to wear today?” And in fact, these black trousers and white blouses have become an important daily reminder that frankly, I’m in control.” (You can read her full article here.)
It struck me because it’s one of those things you cannot negate. Sure, there are some men who spend a few minutes carefully choosing their outfits every morning – but for the most part, it’s women who can spend hours sifting through their closet to piece together the perfect ensemble. And even if you choose a work uniform and save yourself some mental energy, you still likely spend some time each morning putting on makeup and making sure your hair looks presentable.
So I did some quick math. Let’s pretend we’re in a hypothetical world where you’re living with a partner who shares the household chores 50%, so the time and energy you spend on children or the household is exactly the same (don’t scoff – make it happen!). Even then, a women likely spends, say, at least 15 more minutes on hair and makeup, and 5 more minutes choosing an outfit compared to a man. Men do usually have to shave, but let’s say their facial shaving time is canceled by women’s shaving time removing bodily hair in the shower.
(I’m going to assume these numbers as conservative averages, for the sake of argument. Obviously, there will be women on both extremes of the spectrum, but let’s continue with the expectation that the average female will take at least 20 more minutes in the morning to get ready than the average male).
We’re landing at 20 more minutes each morning – which adds up to 100 minutes during a work-week, or 4600 minutes if you work 46 weeks in a year. That’s around 80 hours. Every single year. Over the course of your working life of 40 years, that gets you to roughly 130 days.
That’s at least 130 days over your life that disappear in front of a mirror, making sure your hair is in place and your eyeliner is straight. This doesn’t even take into account hair appointments, salon visits, mani/pedis, shopping for makeup and clothes, or the slew of other time invested into beauty – those are arguably leisure activities, so we’ll ignore them here. But the everyday putting yourself together to step into work in the morning – just that time adds up to 130 days over your lifetime.
What would you do with a spare 4 months? Write a book? Travel the world? Watch every episode of Game of Thrones – five or six times? Read those 100 books you’ve been adding to your list?
The next logical argument is to just skip the step – cut your hair short and don’t wear makeup. And while feasible to implement, there’s a whole slew of studies that actually link makeup with women performing or feeling better, both in school and in the workplace, and being taken more seriously.
Is this is a gendered, societal expectation? Of course. Does it need to be countered? Arguments can be made in either direction. Some women feel empowered when they look better, and they believe they look better when they wear makeup. This feeling of empowerment when adhering to traditional beauty standards is likely developed and not innate.
I’m not an expert, but changing these norms likely demands media as well as the ~$500B beauty industry to act cohesively in terms of messaging, to allow standards to evolve and change. It also requires a change in perspective and expectations across the population.
If we did want to change this norm, as always, one of the most critical steps occurs in a human’s early years. Within the classroom, teachers need to be especially careful that all girls are treated equally – regardless of their appearance or use of makeup. If young girls see pretty classmates getting more attention from the teacher, that understanding will become a part of their consciousness throughout the rest of their lives.
I understand there are larger battles to be fought. We’re far from being treated equally at work, in school, or anywhere else – regardless of makeup. Women carry a disproportionate share of the burden for household chores and childcare. Sexual harassment and discrimination are still common occurrences, as 2017 unveiled.
Still, there’s something startling in realizing that even our everyday act of getting ready – of just getting dressed to step out of the door in the morning – is a gendered discrepancy that adds up to four months over our lifetime. Even the smallest of our gender-based differences adds up to thousands of dollars in additional spending and lost productivity, and there’s no simple fix. Even I can’t argue that the answer is a quality education for all children. There’s so much more that will need to be done.
We have a long, long way to go.