Consider the contemporary urban playground.
The dads are still in their 2009 jeans; they sport t-shirts celebrating their favorite bands from the late ’90s; maybe they shaved last Tuesday.
The moms are in jeans and casual tops too, but the fourth pair of jeans they’ve bought since the first pregnancy. Blouses are loose, meant to flutter over rather than cling to the post-baby stomach, and sport a bit of asymmetrical flair—anything to divert the viewer’s attention from the sad, wobbly, drunk-clinging-to-a-lamppost state of our midsections. Makeup is minimal but present.
The boys are carbon copies of their dads in (mostly neat) jeans and sneakers; the girls, while still dressed for play, are a notch up in terms of style: They’re in little poplin frocks with mint-green bicycle prints and matching bloomers; they wear soft gray dresses and citron leggings and Mary Janes. With very few exceptions, the boys have short hair, mercilessly shorn by the silent Israeli barber for $15, and the girls have long hair, cut for $25 at a salon where one can sit in a large plastic duck. In my family, my two sons and husband are out the door in 15 minutes flat compared to my 30 or 40—those asymmetrical blouses need to be ironed, and my hair requires some minimal attention to not look like a meth addict’s. My husband uses the time he spends waiting for me to work or play the guitar.
This is not news to Stephen DeLoach, an economist at Elon University who studies time use and grooming. I talked to Dr. DeLoach about grooming standards for boys and girls. He has a seven-year-old son and agreed that his and his son’s morning routines are as speedy as my husband and sons’. (“His hair is so short it doesn’t need combing. Stripes and plaids together? Fine. We do brush his teeth.”) DeLoach examined data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey and found, in a 2011 study coauthored by his colleague Tina Das, that women generally groom about 15 more minutes a day than do men—about 45 minutes to men’s 30. But: He also found that women who groomed for 45 more minutes a day, for a total of an hour of a half, made 3% less money than the “average” female groomers.
I asked him what this meant in terms of lifetime earnings, and he spent a moment tapping on his calculator. This 3% can add up to, over a 30-year-working life, $1.4 million. (He calculated using an admittedly pretty sweet $50,000 starting salary, but remember we were talking about children who won’t be entering the workforce for another twenty or so years.) “$1.4 million could make a pretty big difference in retirement,” he commented. Yep.
Now, my first thought is—an hour and a half a day? What on earth are you doing, burning your face off and re-growing it? But then one focuses on the puzzle of it—why does more grooming mean less money? Certainly some grooming is necessary, especially for jobs that are public- or client-facing. Good grooming signals conscientiousness, a commitment to the workplace, being “on top of it.” But what tips the balance to punish the women who are primping more? DeLoach posits that perhaps bosses penalize women for looking overly fussy; I posit that whatever subcultures are encouraging their women to look an hour and a half removed from their natural state are not the subcultures directing their women toward high-paying professions.
The prep work
When I picture my female friends who are working in “high-powered” professions, they don’t seem particularly primped—there’s no Joan Cusack in Working Girl here. They present a very no-nonsense—though still feminine—appearance. And most of them have got a morning routine down. Take, for example, Sarah, a tech company professional: “I only use eyeshadow, liner, mascara and occasionally gloss…” This minimal makeup signals attention to her appearance, but in a non-vain, non-frivolous way that emphasizes a certain seriousness. You don’t want your stockbroker to be making kissy lipstick faces at herself as your portfolio plummets.
But as I continue email-chatting with Sarah, another topic surfaces—the idea of the “prep work” separate from the morning routine. Sarah says: “The prep things that take the most time, so that it’s easy to get out the door in the morning, [are]… weekly manicures and coming up with seasonal, age-appropriate attire (in a profession that doesn’t have a clear-cut dress code—which is exhausting). Men don’t have age-appropriate [clothing] issues… As a guy, you can wear a button-down shirt and pair of cotton-blend pants from ages 20-60 and be perfectly presentable at nearly all work events these days.”
Even minimalist grooming routines are the result of a certain lengthy backstory—waxing or shaving on the weekends to reduce time spent in the shower hunched over a razor, hair color and cuts, manicures and pedicures and shopping to accommodate an ever-shifting definition of “appropriate.” Even if the morning routine is speedy, this backstory ups the time spent over a month, or a year, or a lifetime, on maintaining a traditionally feminine appearance. Who knows—maybe it even raises the average from 45 minutes to an hour and a half per day.
The other options
So what happens if we just completely opted out of the grooming standards for women and spent the time, say, playing guitar? What if I, like the sound-designer dad on the playground, wore a baggy Little Feat t-shirt and holey Converse? What if I mowed my hair into a crewcut every three months, or even let it grow past my collar in some kind of bizarre, Winona-Ryder-circa-1992 shag—but gray—like some of the artsier men seem to be going for? On a 40-year-old post-baby woman, a thin, ratty t-shirt is not going to cut it—we’re all searching for lined, ruched blouses that have a certain amount of tenting from the bust to the waistline. (One friend suggested: “What about a shirt that is basically a hard shell? Like a fiberglass carry-on suitcase, but with holes for your head and arms.”) This “masculine” grooming standard would come off as not really taking care of herself, or letting herself go, or any other of the many, many ways we have of saying that a woman is not keeping her physical self on a stern, effortful, and costly leash.
I asked a woman, Eleanor, who’s an administrator at an all girls’ school in Connecticut, what would happen if her female colleagues adopted a “man’s” standard of grooming, like the one Sarah refers to—short hair, khakis, a button-down. She reports that she has had many colleagues who have indeed done just that. But when I asked, is there any blowback from colleagues, superiors, parents or students? She said, “Oh gosh, of course people make [negative] comments. It’s not PC, but…” Women who show up for work un-primped will pay a professional price, even if it’s just snarky comments—and I wonder if such a teacher would be chosen to represent the school in a public capacity, for example, or if she would be passed over for not being “polished” enough.
This inequity, which amounts to a cultural theft of time, starts in childhood. The little girls on the playground, even at age four, demonstrate vastly more time spent on their appearance than do the boys. Their mothers complain about the time it takes—and the battles! the screaming!—to comb their daughters’ long hair, the detanglers, conditioners, elastics, clips and barrettes, the brushing and the braiding. For black girls, for whom the importance of well-groomed hair has been documented, the time suck may be even greater. I talked to an African-American Brooklyn mom with boy/girl twins; she reported that both kids get their hair done every two weeks, but the boy’s $8 cut takes 15 minutes and the girl’s $25 styling takes an hour. I can attest that the boys and the girls on the playground are equally adorable, but that adorableness represents considerably more time and money for the girls than it does for the boys.
What if you had all that grooming time back? Imagine if you could reclaim all the minutes you spent examining yourself for something to tweeze—predators on the savannah do not watch the landscape as patiently as a women searching for a stray hair—or eye-watering your way through an eyeliner tutorial from a vaguely hostile makeup clerk. Imagine if you had never tried to scrub your skin off with some violent iteration of apricots-turned-into-shards; what if you had back the efforts you made to minimize your pores? (Here’s a time-saving tip: your pores are going to stay large. Try wearing something big around your head, like a spelunking lamp, to make the pores look comparatively small.) What if, instead, you were doing something that directly or indirectly boosted your skills—playing the guitar, fooling around with some computer code, learning a language? This could be a major part of the wage gap between men and women, as well as the wage gap between the “average” groomers and the “high” groomers. In a financial smackdown between the plucker and the coder, the coder is going to win. In a political smackdown between a man and a woman, as this 2008 Slate article points out, the man is going to win—he gets an extra 15 or 20 minutes a day to bone up on unemployment statistics or farm subsidies.
But wait, this is about kids. So, yes, I get it. If I had a daughter I’m sure I would buy the little sundresses. I’m sure I would spend time pinning her hair with butterfly barrettes, despite her struggling and my exasperation, just as my mother did with me. I would want my daughter to be admired! I would hope that her beauty would inoculate her against all the difficulties of life, that perhaps she would sail through adolescence and young womanhood more easily than I did. But I would also be uneasy with this, knowing that I wasn’t asking the same of my sons.
Somehow we are valuing more highly the enjoyment that we get from looking at little girls (the bicycle prints, the bloomers) than we do that of looking at little boys. And that alters the experience of the little girls themselves. We want all the kids to be climbing and playing, but we demand only of the girls that they look adorable while they do it. This is a secondary layer of expectation that tells our girls that the experience of the people looking at them is something to be considered when they’re living their lives. Climb! Jump! Be a high-powered lawyer! Be human rights activist! But – look cute doing it, too. It’s an extra burden that translates into an eternal, niggling, ongoing series of beauty chores.
We’re all Joan Cusack in Working Girl, to some extent. I don’t want to stand at my closet and nix a dress because I didn’t have time to shave my legs. I don’t want to think, are my toenails too raggedy for open-toed shoes? I just want to get out the door. Or play the guitar while I wait for my husband.