On women, money, and shame…

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Last week I read an excellent article in Harper’s Bazaar about the culture of shame that still surrounds women and the money they spend on… well… basically anything that brings them pleasure.  Read it and ponder.  It resonated deeply with me, as I have become more and more aware this in my own life over the last several months.

I began musing over the fact that for years I have enjoyed nice accessories — handbags in particular, but also shoes or the occasional pretty wallet.  It is my one thing I splurge on, but thanks to the intense judgement of women and how they spend their money, I realize now that my enjoyment of them has consistently been tainted by the perception that I have been judged by others for that enjoyment.  In some ways, it it very easy to dismiss that feeling as me “just being sensitive” and “caring too much what others think.”  However, I think that kind of dismissal is an insidious form of gaslighting that ignores the real issue: women are consistently shamed for anything that brings them pleasure, whether it is sex, food, jewelry, a handbag, or even just a few minutes of time to relax.  The stigma attached to female pleasure — that it is decadent, unnecessary, overly indulgent, materialistic, or any number of other negative adjectives — is very real, with very real ramifications.  Jennifer Wright hit the issue square on with her observation that “monitoring what a woman spends her money on represents a new, sophisticated way of infantilizing women and reminding them that they’re too silly to know what is good for them.”

While I knew I was uncomfortable when people commented on my handbags, whether it was an offhand compliment or an observation that I must have quite a collection, I was not aware of how much I had internalized this cultural insistence on shame.  Spending money on myself was somehow shameful.  Everything must have utility attached, or it is egregiously indulgent.  A compliment as innocuous as “cute jacket!” might come my way, and I would reply how warm it was, because heaven forbid I just think it was pretty, or even worse, think I looked pretty in it.  Then I would be wasteful AND vain.  And overly self-indulgent.  And a drain on my husband and our household.  Clearly.

Nothing has crystallized this double standard of men and women and the perception of the money they spend than the recent experience of buying a new (to us) car a couple months ago.  My husband and I were both excited, but while he told friends and colleagues about it delightedly, I found I was embarrassed to even mention it to my closest friends.  Now I know exactly why that is: because it is socially acceptable for a man to spend money for enjoyment; for women, it is anathema.  Never mind that we had very practical reasons for our decision; a nicer car means high-fives for a man, and assumptions about gold-digging or materialism for a woman.  Rich or poor, women cannot seem to escape the toxic message that they need to enjoy less, take up less space, streamline their spending, take pleasure in less.

“If you can afford it, and it brings you a bit of joy, there is no reason to feel ashamed,” Wright tells us.  While it will be a long road until I can fully live this way, knowledge and working towards better is a good place to start.  As women we can rein in the ingrained habit of judging each other — and the even deeper habit of judging ourselves — one day at a time.

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