November 26, 2012

Female accessories -- for attracting boys or intimidating other girls?

One of the most dramatic changes in the visual culture since I was a kid has been the virtual disappearance of make-up and jewelry on girls. I mean decorative make-up, not the repairing kind. During the same time, girls seem to have become obsessed with shoes and bags. The simultaneous rise of shoes and bags and the fall of cosmetics and jewelry suggests that they serve opposite functions, and thus hints at a shift in women's strategies and priorities.

Starting in the 1960s, and peaking in the '80s and early '90s, girls started wearing make-up on more of their face, using more color, and employing striking or contrasting colors and shades, such as light blue eyeshadow and vivid red lipstick.

Over the past 20 years, the colors first got more bland or neutral (I remember brownish-purplish lipstick on my high school peers in the later 1990s), were not used in as many places around the face, and then left altogether. Nowadays a girl around 20 years old wears some kind of skin-toned foundation to even out her complexion, colorless lip gloss to make the lips look moist, and maybe a little eyeliner in a sober shade. Make-up is used to give her a normal healthy appearance, not to ornament the face.

Then there's the parallel course for jewelry. They seemed to place accessories especially around the face and hands, for inviting in and reaching out. Earrings and necklaces that you could see across the room, and all that stuff in their hair such as barettes, bows and ribbons, puffy hair ties, hair ties that had marble-looking things attached to them, scrunchies, headbands with teeth, sweatbands, and probably a thousand other things I don't remember. Not to mention lots of bracelets on both arms, watches, rings, and colored nail polish. Over the last 20 years, you saw less and less of those things, and hardly any right now.

Girls were more boy-crazy back in the good old days, not just in their mind but in their behavior too, whereas in recent decades they've gradually become less sexually active and more likely to find boys bothersome. So cosmetics and jewelry do just what you'd think they do -- try to attract boys, in order to interact with them and take it further. Hence the perennial complaints from parents: "You look like a streetwalker with your face painted like that."

We're surrounded by attention whores these days, yet they wear almost no make-up or jewelry, proving that those decorations were used not just to get ego-boosting looks from boys at a distance, but to develop a connection with them after snaring their attention.

As girls withdrew their energies from the courting of boys, they re-invested it in female-vs.-female competition, the other side of mating effort. Other girls will not be scared away by cutesy things like hot pink lipstick, ribbons in the hair, or dangly earrings. They want to project the image of a bitch that doesn't take shit or fuck around, so they've adopted a more military focus on their accessories. A soldier's most distinctive non-clothing items are his footwear and some kind of sack to haul all of his gear (and a weapon, of course).

Girls seem to have grown more and more preoccupied with the attention-getting power of their footwear, even as they've lost interest in other accessories. In particular, they've moved more and more toward boots, and not knee-high sexual boots (such as go-go boots or hooker boots like Julia Roberts wears in Pretty Woman). They're more military looking, clunkier and chunkier. In the '80s you never would've seen high school chicks wearing those big blocky Uggs -- like, dyke-orama. Wellies are de rigueur these days, and it's common to see big floppy boots that call to mind unlaced combat boots -- for the sassy stormtrooperette who just doesn't give a fuck what you think. Even high heeled shoes have a strappy part going up the calf, suggesting ancient warrior sandals or whatever.

Also, women in heels seem to use more of a stomping gait than they used to, when they aimed for nonchalant elegance. Maybe the lady ladder-climber might have stomped around the boardroom in the '80s, but that must've been it. Today they walk that way around the local supermarket.

In fact, girls' shoes were pretty nondescript in the good old days, not attention-grabbing like today. Aside from the neon-colored jelly shoes that little girls wore in the '80s, the most iconic shoes of that decade were white no-nonsense sneakers that women wore on their way to and from the office, and plain white low-top Keds that teenage girls used for just about every occasion.

After all, boys could care less what your shoes look like, compared to your face and hair, so why fret over shoes if your goal is to get dates? But other girls will notice every detail about your shoes, so if you're more locked into competition with them, you'd better strive to intimidate them with your fashion sense or militaristic vibe.

And the same applies to the obsession with bags. I remember my teenage babysitters in the '80s having a purse, but it wasn't remarkable enough that I have a clear picture of what it looked like. They must've been as nondescript as their shoes. Purses were strictly functional, and I do recall them functioning non-stop -- taking out their compact, re-applying their lipstick, getting gum or tic-tacs, and other activities related to making themselves pleasant for the boys.

Beginning in the 1990s, women started caring more about what their bag told the world about them -- namely, they wanted it to tell the world to get the fuck out of her way. There's the encrustation of elite designer logos, to signal right away that she's got better fashion sense than all you jealous bitches out there. And there's a lot more metal details (snaps, clasps, belt loops, etc.) to give it a serious, military look. And they might as well be as large as duffel bags these days -- not elegant at all.

Though again, the goal isn't to entice boys to come up and flirt with her, but to send a threatening signal to other females: my bag could beat up your bag. There's also a shaming element to it, like you must not be going anywhere if all of your gear fits into that tiny little bag. A Real Serious Chick who has her act together needs to haul around all kinds of equipment that the, ugh, future homemaker does not.

So be careful when, in dreaming up a great society, you wish for low female interest in courting males. That only re-directs their mating effort into female-female competition, bringing out the worst of their catty and self-centered potential. And far from being confined to the girls' locker room, these combative and repulsive vibes pollute entire public spaces. I'd gladly accept a little more promiscuity in the culture if it got rid of this military man-woman phenomenon. And in reality, not hypothetically, girls in the '80s weren't mega-sluts, so the necessary trade-off wouldn't raise promiscuity to intolerable levels.

7 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:20 PM

    Ballet flats and trainers seem dominant amongst the girls in their twenties that I know (I'm not fashion conscious, but the older women I know have commented in my earshot about the former). Perhaps they want to look like athletes or something?

    Re: makeup trends, I'm sure some manufacturers have tons of data on this. I'm not really too aware of it I must admit, other than the trend being for Korea to be the primary market for new items, heavy users, &c. (perhaps in contrast to Latin America and places like that?).

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  2. Anonymous3:13 PM

    Lots of directions you could go with this.

    First, how do flip-flops fit into this?

    Second, from what I've seen, and as you've documented, the same thing is going on with men, i.e. men are focused more on competing with each other than appealing directly to women.

    For instance, you mentioned how men have shorter haircuts now, which are less attractive to women. Teenage boys no longer go around shirtless, displaying their bodies to interested girls; jeans are baggy or nondescript instead of form-fitting; facial hair and goatees are more popular.

    On facebook, men and women have pictures of themselves with all their friends, in a party atmosphere. Rarely does anyone these days just have a pic of his or her face.

    You see this with the whole fratboy subculture/"bros before hos". The emphasis is on trying to dominate or endear yourself to other men, rather than appeal directly to women. PUA obsesses over the idea of the "alpha male" who dominates other men(which itself is a ridiculous concept).

    Why do you think this is, i.e. why does falling-crime make people more same-sex competitive/hierarchical, as opposed to "sexy"?

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  3. Anonymous4:24 PM

    "And in reality, not hypothetically, girls in the '80s weren't mega-sluts, so the necessary trade-off wouldn't raise promiscuity to intolerable levels."

    Certainly, popular media from the era is not nearly as crass or blatantly sexual as it is today. 60s-80s rockers sang about how in love they were with a woman they wanted to have sex with; as opposed to the "don't trust a hoe" attitude of modern rappers.

    -Curtis

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  4. "how do flip-flops fit into this?"

    lol, yeah we keep hearing about how awful '80s fashions were, but they were a lot more put-together than today, where girls wear baggy sweatpants and flip-flops.

    I don't see them fitting in with the military or intimidating angle. They do work as part of the larger plan to keep the boys away, though.

    Maybe the flip-flops are the closest they can get in hot weather to recreating the sound of boots while stomping around to intimidate other girls. They don't have a hard knocking sound, but they are annoyingly loud and rhythmic -- clack, clack, clack, clack! That's the best they can do for "outta my way, bitches!" in the summer heat.

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  5. "why does falling-crime make people more same-sex competitive/hierarchical, as opposed to "sexy"?"

    One possibility is that when people are more promiscuous, they aren't fighting with each other over such exclusive mating "rights". Why should two dudes fight over a girl if they can both get a short-term fling with her?

    Then when mating is more monogamous, there's more at stake -- exclusive ownership of the girl. With greater stakes comes fiercer competition.

    Ditto for girls competing with each other over boyfriends / husbands.

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  6. Anonymous9:54 AM

    That's an interesting theory, but I'm not sure if I agree. The big hole is that men actually engaged in more intense competitive behavior during high crime times, i.e. beating each other up.

    -Curtis

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  7. Violence is only one dimension of male-male competition. Historians of violence point to the decline of men hanging out in public spaces as a key source of the decline in violence.

    So I'm not so sure that young males today are less violent in a public rowdy context. It's just that they stay holed up in front of their Xbox all day long.

    Guys who work long hours to make themselves more marketable as provider males are also engaging in intense male-male competition over mates.

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