Monday, January 28, 2008

"Letting Herself Go"

Of all the phrases frequently applied to women, one of the most frustrating is "she's let herself go." You never hear about a guy who's "let himself go," and I often find myself confused as to the real meaning of these words. It's usually intended to signify that a woman does not put as much effort into her appearance as she once did, that she's lost control over her looks and is subsequently less valuable or desirable. Yet the words themselves, taken out of context, suggest the kind of freedom that many of us would love to have. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the idea of freeing oneself from the expectations and pressures placed on us as women means that we've lost control of our identities and how others perceive us.

I got to thinking about this topic after reading this recent New York Times article discussing how looking young and trendy is considered by some to be "critical to every woman's personal and financial survival." What offends me about the positions of many of the women quoted is that they promote the idea that looking one's age is one of the worst things a woman could do to herself. To look your age is, in their words, "letting yourself go." It would be one thing if this message was coming from a man (I think a lot of women would be up in arms if it was), but to hear this from another woman is especially aggravating. As women, we should be fighting to reverse gender discrimination and change society's impossibly high expectations for how women should look and act.


Obviously one's looks play a big role in how they're perceived by others, but it seems that the woman who dresses to flatter her body, who looks put-together and appropriate, but who refuses to get dye her hair or get Botox or more drastic plastic surgery, is in no way "letting herself go." She's fully in control of herself and should be proud of how she presents herself to the world. And I won't deny that we live in a culture that favors youth, but it's not like you can really fool anyone as to your real age. Instead, most women who go to drastic measures to look younger end up emphasizing their age, and looking desperate and insecure. Somehow, I don't think those qualities will help anyone achieve more in their personal or professional life, let alone enjoy the things they have achieved.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Eloquently said and very true. Brava!

Deja Pseu said...

That phrase has always irked me as well. And I agree that trying too hard to look "young" backfires more often than not.

Karen said...

Wonderful post! ::applause::

Anonymous said...

I couldn't disagree more. You've honestly never seen a middle aged man who had a beer gut? I think when it's applied to men it generally has much more to do with physical fitness and body shape than being dressed well, but I've definitely heard people say that a man had 'let himself go.' Furthermore, I don't think anyone would say that Helen Mirren had 'let herself go.' Even if she isn't wearing black nail polish and skinny jeans, she obviously still expends a lot of effort on her appearance. That's what it means to let oneself go or not, and I think you're grasping at straws to claim it's a gender issue.

the addict said...

Great post, Meg! I would only disagree with you on one point...I actually feel the term is used for men with some frequency these days. Vince Vaughn comes to mind immediately, followed by Ben Affleck, Val Kilmer and even Leonardo di Caprio. They put on a little weight between roles, stop tanning, or go without shaving for a few days, and the tabloids are all over them. It's definitely not as bad as it is for women, but I think the expectations for men - especially the famous ones - are slowly creeping up. I even found myself using the phrase "letting himself go" when talking about a male cousin last week...yikes. Guess it's getting tougher for both genders.

lisa said...

Interesting post, Meg. Like the other commenters, I disagree about the gendered implications of this phrase because I've heard it applied to men as well. Also, I think the meaning of the phrase "letting herself go" depends on context. If I use it, it refers to a woman who no longer pays any attention to her appearance and looking put-together when she might have made more of an effort in the past. It doesn't refer to someone who spends half her waking hours at the plastic surgeon's office.

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean...Clooney and Gere look great with grey hair, but can any woman in her 40s/50s--whether an actress or a real person in an office--be equally well-received?
But I will say some men just don't age well. Al Gore for one has been taken to task for the change in his appearance...he was a handsome man and now he's not so much. But Gore is so intelligent, though and does so much good, it's almost not an issue...his now less than matinee idol looks are just something for the comedians to pick on. Alec Baldwin is another one whose looks have dramatically decreased; not even 50 (OK, in a couple of months...)and he's beefy and almost unrecognizable.

Brava97 said...

Just wait until you attend your 20-year high school reunion. You will indeed refer to many men as having let themselves go.

MizzJ said...

Does anyone else find it disturbing that this book was supposedly promoted by Oprah?? Seems very odd coming from the queen of female spiritual empowerment!

Deja Pseu said...

Ah, but Oprah is all about appearances (and pushing conventional attractiveness) and promoting anything that will make her audience want to go out and buy more stuff.

Deja Pseu said...

My observation about the term "letting oneself go" and men is that it's primarily applied to celebrities and men in the public eye. I don't think it's hit the popular lexicon yet when applied to Joe Average, though Jane Average is not immune.

AnyaPosh said...

This was very well said. I think more women need to start seriously taking into consideration the idea of aging gracefully.

Rachel said...

Fantastic post! Thank you :)

Anonymous said...

I'm 39 and going gray naturally. There's no way I'm dyeing my hair. I love seeing women with the guts to go gray and be their age. Not only do I love fashion and look put together, I'm proud of exactly who I am.

amisare waswerebeen said...

http://www.last.fm/music/George+Strait/_/She+Let+Herself+Go

Click here for a song I know you'll like. It puts a great twist on a woman "letting herself go". And...I just love George Strait too.

amisare waswerebeen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
amisare waswerebeen said...

Sorry...if you go straight to the link for your post "Letting Herself Go", it will show the full link on my comment.

Meg from The Bargain Queens & All About Appearances said...

Oh, I hate that saying, too -- just like I hate "high maintenance" and other phrases applied only to women. No doubt I'm guilty of using the phrase, but guys can definitely let themselves go, too. Maybe we should call them out in the name of fairness. (Or, we could just stop being so judgemental, but that's a lot harder.)

Of course, guys dye their gray hair and they look a decade or more younger -- or they can leave it and look plenty powerful and sophisticated. Meanwhile, showing gray hairs is practically taboo for us women.

When *I* think of women letting themselves go, though, I usually think of women who spend their later years entirely in gym clothes, no matter what the occasion. I'm still firmly against that. I don't think it's a matter of looking older so much as just looking less put together.

If a woman wants to get cosmetic surgery or Botox, I don't really care. But likewise, I don't care if they don't. And while makeup can be a great help in looking younger, I know women who do just fine without any.

The article and the book does bring up a good point, though, which is that it is harder to compete in the workplace if you look like an old woman. Yes, it's unfair and we should work to change the system. But meanwhile, I think that it's also important to point out that dressing a bit nicer, wearing makeup, dyeing one's hair, etc., isn't just vanity, it's strategy. And once you understand the rules of the game and what's at stake, you can decide for yourself how far you want to go.

On the flip side, looking too young is just as dangerous to one's career!

mani said...

I think the most important thing for a woman "of a certain age" is to know what will flatter her and make her look younger. Most of the time I find, its in simpler things - wearing well-cut clothes, being well-dressed, having a flattering haircut, wearing whatever makeup and using whatever skincare works for THEM! Taking care of your health matters an enormous deal, and being young at heart makes an even bigger difference. My grandmother takes care of her health, dresses in traditional clothes, and has a beautiful spirit. When people see her, its not wrinkles or pores or blackheads, or a long braid of gray hair - they see her spirit and SAY wow she's that age? she looks so much younger! sans skincare or "hip clothes" or even makeup! When I'm her age, most likely I will be paying more attention to style and presentation of myself, but the youthful laugh and smile ever-present on her face will be one thing I'm sure to use to fight AGE!

J. said...

Brava, brava, brava!!!!!

Duchesse said...

Makeup artist Bobbi Brown said "If you have a face lift, you don't look like a young person, you look like an old person with plastic surgery."

People read neglect of grooming as "letting go". A great haircut, nice nails, shoes in good shape, clothes that fit- essentials for either sex.
I recently saw a woman in at least her mid 70's in crisp black yoga pants, a tailored white shirt worn over the top, and lime green driving loafers (at the market). She looked terrific!