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Blog Debate with Louise Mensch and Glosswitch: can you dress for men, and still be a feminist?

(124 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 04-Jun-13 11:46:04


Can you dress for men, and still be a feminist? In today's guest blog, two forthright MN bloggers debate the question.

Louise Mensch is the novelist and outspoken former Tory MP for Corby, who resigned her seat last August in order to move to New York, where her husband is based. She recently launched her blog Unfashionista (subtitled "the lazy girl's guide to gloss"), in which she has written controversially about feminism, fashion - and why women should dress in a way that their male partner finds attractive.

Challenging her position is Mumsnet blogger and contributor to the New Statesman and the Guardian, Glosswitch. She writes about feminism, family and pretty much anything else you care to mention over on her blog, Glosswatch (subtitled "humourless mummy, cuddly feminist").

Read the debate, and tell us where you stand here on the thread - and don't forget to post your URL if you blog on this issue.

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LouiseMensch Tue 04-Jun-13 11:50:48

Dear Glosswitch

I wasn't really that surprised to the reaction to my first post in the "What Men Want" series on Unfashionista. This was because I'd experienced it before.

In an interview for the Sunday Times I was asked about my relationship. Was I anxious about looking good for him. Yes, I said. It was an act of love for a husband and wife who have committed to each other to keep themselves looking as good as they can. I love him and I dress up for him, I said. Not in a Barbie doll way. He lifted weights for me, and I thought he was gorgeous.

Cue a storm of pieces over the next week saying "Louise Mensch says women should dress up for their husbands." "Louise Mensch dresses up for her husband." "Louise says women should dress to please their men."

That controversy stayed with me for quite some time and saddened me as a feminist. Where had we got to, as a society in general and as a movement in particular, that the basic kindness of keeping yourself attractive for the man who has committed to you is suddenly seen as a submissive betrayal?

Fundamentally, an exclusive relationship demands a lot of both sexes. It is key that you are willing to bend to the needs of the other. Men differ from women biologically in that they are much more visually stimulated than we are. We know this anecdotally - Playboy etc cater to men exclusively - Playgirl to gay men - there are no successful publications that sell women images of handsome or attractive men - we are not wired that way. We also know it from multiple peer-reviewed scientific studies.

It's not that women don't find men attractive, but that for a woman, attraction is based on more than just looks - it is situational. Women need to imagine scenarios for arousal rather than just seeing images.

If your man is with you, it is a dead cert that he has self-selected. He likes the way YOU look. He wants to see you at YOUR best. In fitted clothes that show your body (the one he's attracted to), with washed and blow-dried hair, with very light make-up that lets him see your skin and face.

He's already committed to have sex with you and only you for the rest of his natural life. You owe it to him to make that as pleasant as possible. This is not anti-feminist. Rather it is recognising and celebrating the absolutely vital role that passion and desire play in a truly happy relationship, and acknowledging male biology on visual stimulation.

And what should he do for you? Well certainly he should do what you find attractive. That is unlikely to rest on his clothe and hair. I for example like to see my man in a suit but he hates them, and to be honest, it's not what I find attractive about him. I like muscles, and he lifts. I like alphas, and he is one. He takes care of my needs. I do my best to take care of his.

My feminism is one that celebrates men, that fundamentally likes them, that doesn't blame them for looks mattering to them. The idea that women should pay no attention to what men want in looks, dress, hair, and style, and that such a notion is unfeminist, is precisely why most women these days refuse to self-idenitfy as feminists. Instead of seeing the movement as one that calls for equal rights and opportunities for women, they see it as one that is anti-men ? that takes the basic truisms of a loving relationship and calls them treachery.

Glosswitch1 Tue 04-Jun-13 11:51:39

Dear Louise

It's great that you've found the partner who's right for you. Far be it from me, as a fellow feminist, to question your right to please him in the way you choose. It's only when this becomes a recommendation for the rest of us that my (unplucked) eyebrows are raised.

You ask where we have got to as a society "that the basic kindness of keeping yourself attractive for the man who has committed to you is suddenly seen as a submissive betrayal". Do you remember the song Keep Young And Beautiful? The one that told women "it's your duty to be beautiful, if you want to be loved"? The one that became a sarcastic rallying cry for 1970s feminists, who knew back then that it was total rubbish? Well, I'd like to think we've learned from that. We now know that women and men can be equals. We don't owe men that hopeless, unachievable debt of gratitude. Wearing lipstick is a choice, not a moral obligation.

Do I really owe it to my partner of thirteen years to make having sex with me "as pleasant as possible" (talk about damning with faint praise)? How far should one go in this? When would I have failed in my obligations? Not styling my hair? Failing to shave down below? Wearing "period pants" at the wrong time of the month? Do these things really indicate that a woman doesn't care enough to acknowledge "male biology" - or could it be that the regressive social codes of neurosexism work for some and not for others? Couples need to make their own choices, regardless of gender and sexuality. No woman should feel pressured into "maintaining herself" for her man.

Obviously, this freedom works both ways. My partner once had a girlfriend who was into the whole "men and weights" thing. She bought him some dumbbells, as a subtle hint. He left them on his bedroom floor, tripped over them and broke his arm. I think there is a lesson in this. Perhaps it's that my man is more beta than alpha. Or perhaps it's that you have to be with someone who lets you be yourself (I've no idea where his ex is now. But I know not to buy my man weightlifting equipment).

Feminists are right to be concerned if one of their number starts advising them on "what men want in looks, dress, hair, and style". We're bigger and better than that. Domestic abusers might feel "their" partners owe it to them to look a certain way but most partnerships don't operate under such a pitiful rate of exchange. Women are not passive objects, waiting to be plucked off the shelf. We're mistresses of our own destiny.

Moreover, a movement that "celebrates men" doesn't fear their rejection or create bland, dehumanizing lists of their "needs". Men are not household pets, requiring food, water and a suitably blow-dried companion. They have individual preferences, too. To think that isn't anti-men; it's pro-human.

LouiseMensch Tue 04-Jun-13 11:52:32

Dear Glosswitch,

Well, see, men actually do require food and water. And while they don't require a blow-dried companion in exactly the same way, they do need a partner who clearly makes an effort for them - an effort to be attractive to them. While love is more than passion, and we can and do care for our husbands and boyfriends in myriad non-sexual ways - as they do for us - attraction and sexuality are at the heart of a healthy romantic relationship.

I think the song that you referred to was always a bit of a piss-take, even before the feminists of the 70s were up in arms about it. We can't keep young; and we can't keep the beauty of youth. But we absolutely can keep ourselves stylish, healthy and fit at any age. A man who loves his woman will not think of jacking her in for a younger girl; but he will be proud and happy to see his 55 year old wife sexy and strong and elegant, like Helen Mirren or myriad other older women we know.

It's bemusing to me that you frame the notion of making an effort to look good for your man in terms of domestic abuse and passivity. This is not something I suggest men demand of women - any man who makes such demands should get you running away fast - but something that a loving female freely offers her man.

When have you failed in your duty? Period pants? Not styling your hair? No, and no - only when you let slovenliness become a habit, when you don't care at all how you look to him, when you expect him to "love me as I am" without making the least effort to look good for him. It may be that he's a goth or a yuppie or a bodybuilder - men have their tastes, and they vary. A loving woman bears in mind what her man finds attractive. Because men are visually stimulated.

And what he's stimulated by is going to be the authentic you in the first place. It's going to be your style. When he first met you, he was attracted to you, not somebody else. Considering "what men want" for those already in a relationship is nothing more than being the best version of yourself - or at least a reasonably good one - not trying to turn yourself into Barbie. Wearing lipstick may not be an obligation (I don't own any) - but caring enough about him to look like you're making an effort is.

There's no point calling a list of needs dehumanizing - men have them, and it's crucial to understand that there are actual, biological differences between the sexes on attraction.

Let's go to your partner's ex-girlfriend. It's fascinating to me that she bought him weights. Isn't this a perfect illustration of the old cliche about men and women - that they marry us hoping we won't change, and we marry them hoping they will?

If she wanted a physically strong guy she should have been looking in the gym.

The fact is that when a couple are dating, they tend to make serious efforts for each other. After they marry, the comfort/baby trap, the exhaustion, the familiarity can sap all that. And for many couples sex dwindles too. But it doesn't have to be that way, nor does considering What He Wants need to be a giant effort. Blow drying your hair takes half an hour every other day, some bb cream and bronzer takes literally seconds. And it's as easy to pull on a fitted pair of jeans as a baggy one.

It's not a lot to ask. It's a major signal of love. And it's really about empathy. You're the woman he gave up all others for. When he comes home and you look awesome - whether that's Gap skinnies and a t-shirt and lipgloss or black leathers and long flowing black hair and mascara - it says he matters to you enough for you to bother.

What's wrong with that?

Glosswitch1 Tue 04-Jun-13 11:58:30

Dear Louise

First of all, apologies if I made it sound as though I don't believe men require sustenance! Thankfully, since men can sort such things out for themselves, I trust there's not much harm done.

Regarding the song I mentioned, it's curious that even when you know something to be a piss-take, you're still willing to take it so seriously. Admitting that we can't keep young and beautiful but should at least "make an effort" might sound like a compromise, but it isn't. Looks fade - we all know that - but is "making an effort" therefore a biological or a moral imperative? And does it even matter once your "visually stimulated" man, whose perceived value increases with age, exchanges you for a younger model once your erotic capital is on the wane?

You claim that "a man who loves his woman will not think of jacking her in for a younger girl" and I agree. But isn't that the difference between mere "visual stimulation" and love? I've certainly seen "sexy and strong and elegant" older women exchanged for less wrinkled counterparts, by men who prioritised all things visual over genuine passion. A superficial value system such as you propose makes few allowances for "having made an effort".

Relationships are unique. You gloss over that uniqueness once you start over obsessing over dodgy pseudo-science. Evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, retrosexism - whatever you want to call cherry-picking scientific studies to justify plain old sexism, it's been with us for a long time. As Cordelia Fine, Deborah Cameron, Natasha Walter and others have shown, scientific studies which demonstrate gender difference in visual responses tend to be vastly over-reported. After all, a result that shows no meaningful difference is not newsworthy. I'm not denying that sexism-as-science has its practical uses in the short term; for instance, it makes us believe that the world is more fair, and that women have less agency because they're just "not that way inclined". In the long term, however, it bolsters inequality and resentment. You and I both know that women are not losers, but in this particular narrative, that's where we end up.

When you're talking about relationships, all this can feel harmless, but the link between light-hearted Men Are From Mars psychobabble and sexism in the wider world is undeniable. The women are decorative / men are active belief is at work, for instance, when older women disappear from our TV screens once they're over a certain age. It's there when a male MP says he'd support a push for more females in parliament "if they are attractive". The truth is, this belief is present whenever women aren't taken seriously in the workplace or in public fora, facing criticism and/or sexual harassment because of how they look. As an individual you've done so much to highlight and challenge this. Why should you now give credence to the myths used by those seeking to bring down strong women such as yourself?

SDTGisAnEvilWolefGenius Tue 04-Jun-13 12:47:29

I am fat, unattractive, cannot and do not dress 'for my husband', and never wear make up - and yet, for some reason he loves me.

It is perfectly possible for a man to see more than just the surface gloss of a woman - I am the unglossiest woman you could imagine, and my husband loves me for who I am. More than that - he finds me physically attractive just as I am. His love is unconditional.

Saying that women 'need' to be attractive for their husbands, and should 'make an effort' implies that men are shallow and motivated only by looks - and I do not believe this is true. I cannot have found the only man who is intelligent enough to see below the surface to the person beneath.

As parents, we surely all love our children unconditionally - why do we believe that men are not capable of loving their partners unconditionally?

I would also say that anyone who dresses or moulds their body image to gain approbation/approval/love from any other person, is putting their happiness and security in that other person's hands. It is all fine and dandy as long as you can meet their standards, but what happens when you lapse? Have a bad day and don't manage to do your hair, put your lipgloss on and dress to please him? If their love is conditional on your appearance, there is a big risk that they will withdraw that love and approval - which could well be very painful and damaging.

henrysmama2012 Tue 04-Jun-13 14:11:12

The whole concept of feminism is treated in such a basic, glossed over way in these types of debates. There are many different types of feminism e.g. radical, socialist, liberal and it seems like no-one bothers to read these definitions before making their points - some of which don't seem to relate directly to feminism at all.

As far as looking good for your man goes...if you'd do it for yourself anyway, then why not? If you feel uncomfortable doing so for yourself, then don't do it for him or anyone else.

FoxMulder Tue 04-Jun-13 14:29:55

My husband finds the kind of women who fanny about with hair styles & make-up and clothes really irritating. Good job I'm not one of them.

TheSurgeonsMate Tue 04-Jun-13 14:53:05


Elsewhere on Mumsnet, angst and stress about the benefits of an Oxbridge education.

JuicyMelons Tue 04-Jun-13 16:31:12

Louise Mensch makes a lot of sense - as far as I'm concerned a morbidly obese scruff of a woman doesn't even love herself, less care about who else might or might not have the hots for her. However, Louise - with her lovely facelift at the age of forty (how much does one have to loathe oneself to get your face hacked at forty?) - is surely an insecure creature to begin with and, I suspect, will forever be in submission to those demons which are clearly telling her she is not good enough without the surgeon's knife. Very sad.

JuicyMelons Tue 04-Jun-13 16:36:46

Women are not passive objects, waiting to be plucked off the shelf. We're mistresses of our own destiny.

Glosswitch, you are clearly not stupid but I suspect you are blind: Haven't you been 'up town' on a Friday night recently? What do you think of the way our young (ahem) ladies are un dressing? They're not just waiting to be fucked plucked off the shelf, they are throwing their spray-tanned, false-eyelashed, angry-browed, false-tittied selves at the nearest bloke still standing at 2am.

AnyFucker Tue 04-Jun-13 16:39:02

How far should one go to be nice for our man ?

Say my husband likes big breasts. I don't have big breasts. Because he has made a commitment to me of sexual exclusivity, it would be mean to keep my breasts small

I have the power to make them bigger for him. So I should do it....right ?

LeStewpot Tue 04-Jun-13 17:05:08

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

JuicyMelons Tue 04-Jun-13 17:18:19

I don't think Louise is saying any of what you are purportedly outraged at, leStewpot. I suggest you read her responses again hmm

PeggyCarter Tue 04-Jun-13 18:44:08

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

PeggyCarter Tue 04-Jun-13 18:45:38

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

PeggyCarter Tue 04-Jun-13 18:48:47

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

MoreBeta Tue 04-Jun-13 19:15:48

I am a man and rather unhelpfully agree with both points of view.

It is nice thing to dress for your partner - it shows thoughtfulness and respect and love and consideration. In return your partner should dress for you. However, both of you should know its OK to have 'off days' and be secure in the knowledge that it doesn't mean you dont care.

Obsessing about what you wear to please your partner is just as bad as not caring at all in my view.

When I met my wife 31 years ago on interview at university she wore zebra stripped eye shadow, red 'Dorothy' patent leather shoes, bright orange boucle coat with one massive black button and lacy gloves. I wore a boring blue pin stripe business suit. She did not dress for me that day but I was besotted. She didnt like me at all but after a few years she came round to the idea. grin

Now she very much likes me wearing a suit (although I rarely do) and she wears lots of nice things I like but not all the time.

We both try to look decent, have a shower, dont get overweight, we both like clothes a lot and like looking well dressed for ourselves and each other. It matters to both of us. We dont worry or obsess about it but we both try.

If you really want to know I do like well dressed, well groomed women but I hate the Barbie look.

Today, I am having an off day. My hair has needed a cut for a month and I am wearing old clothes as I am doing dirty building work. She is in Ralph Lauren. I think our realtionship will survive.

LouiseMensch1 Tue 04-Jun-13 19:50:41

Hi Le Stewpot.

But that isn't at all what I said, is it?

where does "judges a partner entirely on their looks" come from?

Saying he is visually stimulated, and likes to see you looking attractive, doesn't mean that's the ONLY or even primary reason he loves you - it just means he's visually stimulated, likes to see you looking attractive, and not making an effort is cruel.


"Are you supposed to dress up with the flu? 9 months pregnant? Cleaning up masses of vomit at 4 am?" Is exactly the same question Glosswitch asked me when she said "When would I have failed in my obligations? Not styling my hair? Failing to shave down below? Wearing "period pants" at the wrong time of the month?"

My answer to that, and your question, was no, of course you're not meant to dress up all the time. The problem arises when you NEVER make an effort, when you always wear baggy clothes, when you can't be arsed to look nice for him because you are only into pleasing yourself, and making an effort towards what he wants is, to you, submissive retro-Fifties gender slavery.

Again, what I said was, it doesn't have to be complicated or an evening gown with heels. It's a pair of fitted jeans for your shape, some bb cream and maybe you wash your hair every other day. It's not a penance and he will enjoy it.

LittleFrieda Tue 04-Jun-13 19:55:53

"Louise Mensch is the novelist and outspoken former Tory MP for Corby, ..."

I'd like to object to the use of the word outspoken. You would never have used that of a former male MP.

LouiseMensch1 Tue 04-Jun-13 19:57:12

MoreBeta, thanks; this is much more what I mean. You take account of him, you dress up for him, you feel sick you stay in your curlers and nightgown (or whatever the reason might be).

Making an effort for your guy is not about daily primping, it's about most times wearing comfortable clothes that look great on you and using that style he fell for (whether Goth or yuppie).

And that's just not a big deal.

Joyful Puddlejumper:

The original blog has caveats; obviously if anybody has a mental, physical or other ailment that prevents them from trying to look good/best self, then a loving marriage will survive that. Norman Tebbit retired from the Cabinet to devote himself to his wife, totally paralysed after the Brighton bombing. I have no doubt his love for her never waned for a second. If I were to be disfigured, I have no doubt my husband would still love me and stick with me.

This is aimed at most women, without mental or physical impediments, and exploring whether, for them, dressing /making up to look nice for a male partner is submissive anti-feminism, or just an expression of love that recognises male biology.

DameFanny Tue 04-Jun-13 20:02:37

I think this is first time I've deliberately not read anything of the thread bar the title.

So my question and comment is - why are you giving Louise Mensch space?

She's a third rate novelist with a failed business, dropped out of her commitment to her constituents when she resigned her parliamentary seat - who next? Katie Hopkins? hmm

LouiseMensch1 Tue 04-Jun-13 20:20:34

well, I quite like myself, actually. Bossiness, talkativeness having opinions (as a poster below points out, only usually a problem for women), etc, all of these traits are laid at my door. Self-esteem problems not so much.

My husband didn't want me to have my lower face tightened, but I was sure a minor surgical intervention would maintain what I presently had and liked, and three years in, I feel relatively happy with it. He likes how I look and isn't fussed about how I got there. He does sometimes ask me not to get too skinny, but that's about the limits of his suggestion box.


No, I think you should make an effort to look good. Not to chop your body up. My post to glosswitch suggests that any man you are with fell in love with YOU rather than A.N woman or Barbie, and that you should try to be a good version of your authentic self most of the time. That could be long blonde Gwyneth hair or it could be punk and a nose-ring. But yourself.

AnyFucker Tue 04-Jun-13 20:21:42

Louise, should all women have plastic surgery to look better for our men (the jury is out on whether one actually does, but no matter) ?

Where should the line be drawn. Why stop at just BB cream (or other non invasive stuff) ?

LouiseMensch1 Tue 04-Jun-13 20:21:52

oops it didn't thread, sorry am new to posting on Mumsnet. I meant the first part of the above for the gloriously-monickered Juicy Melons.

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