My first boyfriend hated it when I wore makeup. Granted, this was 2011, when I wore such a horrific shade of foundation that my face glowed under the backlights at laser tag (yes, that actually happened), but my makeup made me feel good about myself. However, he didn’t like it, and he told me that if I cared about him, I wouldn’t wear it because I’d want him to be happy.
While that relationship ended in my teen years, I’ve seen startling shadows of similar attitudes from adults in my life. I have friends who don’t wear certain clothes because their boyfriends don’t like them. One of my friends has always wanted her hair short but won’t cut it because her boyfriend said that he’d dump her. I want to note that this isn’t the stereotypical “my boyfriend doesn’t want me to look sexy when he’s not around” machismo (that’s an issue for another day.) I’m talking specifically about the idea that we should make ourselves up to please our partners, not ourselves.
Of course, everyone has preferences. I hate my boyfriend’s mustache with a passion (no, you don’t look like Tom Selleck) and he doesn’t like thick eyeliner on me. Everyone can and should express their preferences in a healthy way, but the desires of your partner shouldn’t overshadow your desires for your own appearance. My boyfriend still rocks a mustache sometimes, and I still wear black eyeliner. We know each other’s preferences on the topic, and aside from some good-natured teasing, we don’t bring it up.
So where is the line between preference and control? Well, let’s start by marking out the extremes. One extreme is never expressing any preference at all, even when asked. The other extreme is not only expressing preferences, but demanding that those preferences be catered to. Neither of those options are good. So how do we navigate the middle ground?
There is rarely a reason to sit down and have a serious conversation with a partner about their aesthetic appearance (I’m talking style choices, not hygiene). My boyfriend and I tend to express our preferences through light joking or positive statements like “I prefer you with a beard.” However, once our opinion is expressed, we don’t bring it up again. Someone’s aesthetic choices are not negotiations. People get the final say over the appearance of their own bodies. You can hate your partner’s makeup or wardrobe or facial hair (I’m looking at you, Tom Selleck mustache), and you can even break up with them over it if it’s truly a dealbreaker, but you should not pressure or demand that someone change their appearance for your benefit. You certainly should not manipulate them into doing what you want with their bodies by threatening to end the relationship or to do something extreme to your own appearance.
I bring this up because its a phenomenon that has played out in my own relationships and in those of my friends. There’s an underlying societal narrative that women dress up and wear makeup for the benefit of the men in their lives. There’s another narrative that men are hopeless at all things fashion and need a woman to come in and decorate their houses and revamp their wardrobes. Neither of these things are true on a large scale, but they do lead to individuals making demands about their partner’s appearance.
I think the most important thing to remember is that your body is your own and you always get the final say in how you present yourself. There is never, NEVER a situation where your partner should tell you what you can wear or how you can present yourself. That’s control. You are not a doll to dress up according to their preferences. You’re a human being. You can, of course, choose to take your partner’s preferences into account, but that is your choice and it should be made without pressure. I’m so sick of hearing things like “I can’t wear ______ because my husband/wife/partner doesn’t like it!”
Of course, many of the statements of this nature are hyperbolic, so I want to return to the anecdote with which I began. I was 14 when my boyfriend told me I shouldn’t wear makeup because he didn’t like it. Regardless of how my poorly matched, drugstore foundation actually looked, I liked it but I stopped wearing it because I wanted to prove I cared about him. We were young teens and we were parroting this toxic paradigm already. When we ascribe our aesthetic choices (or any of our choices) to the parameters of our partners’ desires, we are communicating that we think it’s okay for our partners to dictate our lives. Even if that’s not literally what we mean, that’s what people hear, and it permeates through our society and impacts everyone, including kids who are just starting to figure out how to navigate relationships. We need to be mindful of our words, specifically concerning our choices about our bodily autonomy. Let’s own our choices about our bodies, and let’s be mindful to communicate that while we may take our partners’ desires into account, that we are the ones who decide how we present ourselves, and anything else is not a healthy dynamic.