Monday, October 22, 2012

Emotional Work and Cultural Capital à Deux



Years ago, I dated a bona fide good dresser. Actually, it wasn’t so much that he was a good dresser as it was that he knew what look he wanted to embody: a 1950s career man, one who wears a suit to the office and definitive leisurewear on the weekends. (He may actually have worn a non-ironic fedora, though it’s also possible I’ve mentally superimposed it onto him postbreakup.) He had rules that seemed like someone my grandfather’s age might have—shorts were for boys, not men; always wear an undershirt; single-breasted sportscoats were for hoodlums, etc.

His rules gave me something more than a good giggle: a template. I wanted to be seen as a part of a team—his team—and by styling myself to look the part, I was hoping to become a naturalized citizen of his psychic nation. If I looked like I belonged with him, perhaps I might actually belong with him. It wasn’t only that I wanted to look conventionally good for him (though that too); it was that I wanted us to match. I wanted us to be on the same page of the catalogue, so to speak, so I tailored my own presentation in order to allow both of us to better envision a life in which we were on the same page in other ways. (My page, unlike his, did not include maintaining an active online dating profile while we were together. Must I spell out that part of my eagerness to look like we belonged together was because it was so clear we had no business being so?)

To be clear, this was about me, not him. When I dated an artist whose most recent project had been an installation piece juxtaposing nuclear warheads with My Little Pony, I favored a tousled, spiky haircut and artfully ripped ironic T-shirts; coupled with a wordsmith who wore a uniform of pressed slacks and neutral button-downs, I cultivated a more tailored look that sent a broad, nonspecific signal of ladyhood. Even when spending a week with my skater ex, with whom I’ve developed a siblinglike relationship, I gravitated toward the jeans-tees-sneakers triad that composes his entire wardrobe.

On the surface, what I was doing was matching my styling to that of my various partners. But you don’t have to actually dress alike in order to do what I was actually doing: absorbing responsibility for the public image of our “team.” The clothes I wore may or may not have mattered to the men in my life, but my willingness to perform the “women’s work” of emotional work probably did. “Emotional work”—the management of emotions in relationships—can be as simple as choosing your words carefully during an argument, or evoking a sense of importance in others by purposefully asking questions about their hobbies. Wearing certain clothes or adopting a particular hairstyle might not seem like emotional work at first glance: After all, what we wear has been framed in our current culture as a mode of personal expression. To shift our styling to adapt to a partner seems retrograde. But in a world where women have long been seen as creatures of beauty—and, just as importantly, where both women and men are increasingly being surveyed through social media—women’s longstanding expertise in presentation becomes a form of capital for the couple. Just as the stereotypical “trophy wife” boosts her husband’s social capital, the more plebian version—say, me in kitten heels and a pencil skirt to match my beau’s gabardine suit—boosts the social capital of the team. Dressing to look like Mrs. Him might be retrograde, but dressing to strengthen the notion of a modern dual-income couple seems downright savvy. (I'd be curious to know how this might work in same-sex relationships.)

When we discuss the benefits of beauty in practical terms, we often speak of it as a form of currency—a woman’s beauty in exchange for a man’s wealth. That mind-set is still around aplenty, but I wonder if one fallout of women’s increased independence is that instead of beauty coming into play as currency, it’s more like a form of cultural capital that manages to be both embodied and transferable. Under Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital—the non-financial assets we bring into the world at large, including the workforce—the social goods we bring to the table are largely non-transferable. That is, a wife can’t give her husband her Ph.D., and he can’t give her his ability to speak German. But beauty, as individualistic as it may appear, becomes transferable in romantic relationships: “She must see something we don’t,” we might say about a homely man who snags a beautiful woman. He then becomes elevated in our eyes: What are we missing?

At this point I’m wanting to protest that I’m arguing that, like it or not, beauty and style are a form of embodied cultural capital—not the “erotic capital” that serves to keep true power stratified along sex-based lines. That is, not the erotic capital that I’ve argued against before. But I'm now wondering if I’m just better able to acknowledge the role appearance plays in romance than it might in the workplace—where the bulk of the “erotic capital” rhetoric has been focused—because it seems less distasteful to “use” beauty in personal relationships than in professional ones. In the same way, it’s easier for me to look at my own “emotional work” within intimacies as opposed to professionally because even when it’s difficult on me personally, at least I can acknowledge it’s my own choice, to a degree.

And at this point, I’m wondering if I’m defending my personal history of playing matchy-match with terms like “embodied cultural capital” because I'm seeing exactly how powerless it has made me in the past to eagerly take on emotional work within intimate relationships—and how doubly powerless it can feel when that work takes on the form of not only emotional work but beauty work as well. So I’m shutting up with the Bourdieu and asking all of you: Have you found yourself purposefully using your appearance as a tool within intimate relationships? That is, have you used the tools of conventional femininity or masculinity as a way of communicating deeper desires within a relationship—a desire to be closer, perhaps, or a desire to display your unity to the outside world. (On the most basic level it’s impossible to avoid using your looks in the arena of romance—I mean, who wouldn’t primp before a date?—so I’m not necessarily talking about the actual attention you’d pay to looking and feeling alluring.) It’s only in retrospect that I’ve been able to understand the times I’ve done this in the past (and of course if you asked me if I’m deploying my appearance within intimate relationships now, you’d get nothing but doe-eyed innocence), and I know this is sort of an abstract question, but I’d love to hear people’s experiences of how your looks have played out within your relationships, either privately or in your public life as a couple.

26 comments:

  1. This article grabbed me enough to pull me out of the cave I usually lurk in, because I have absolutely done this. I tend to dress like the people I date (although I absolutely draw the line at Birkenstocks). I kind of like doing it - it's like we're presenting a brand together as a couple.

    The example that stands out most in my mind was when a relationship was in trouble; my partner had earlier pressured me to have hair like his, so 4 days before our break up I let him shave my head.

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    1. Oh yes, the "relationship in trouble" efforts--I've done a few of those myself. But none as extreme as shaving the head! I hope you enjoyed it afterward too...

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  2. Same sex perspective: when I was with my ex-girlfriend, we often dressed in coordinating colors though very different outfits. (Never on purpose. Holy shit, that would have been annoying. I think we just liked the same colors.) Like, I'd wear a black cardigan, a white shirt, and a bright blue skirt, and she'd come in with black jeans and a bright blue and black plaid shirt. I always felt really cute when that happened, but in retrospect there was a little more to it. We were the representative queers at our school and I was the femme one who'd dated the 'hot' boys before (I'm bi), so looking like we belonged together got her some respect, I think? She definitely became more confident and a better dresser over the course of our relationship. And for me, I guess it was good because other girls could look at the advantages of dating someone who wasn't immersed in fucked-up boy culture--"Awwww, that's so cute, they match! Camelliagirl's gf is so sweet to her! I wish my boyfriend would do that for me"--instead of just being like "Ewww lesbians."

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    1. So interesting that even though you didn't intend for there to be a sort of "brand," that it had that effect, with the whole, "I wish my boyfriend would do that for me" idea from straight girls. I imagine being the representative queers meant that you were being watched for signals of all sorts--intentional or not.

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  3. The bit about absorbing responsibility for the emotional work of the relationship as represented by altering one's presentation to 'mesh' with the partner's really resonated with me. Perhaps it's because I find myself explicitly resisting that (maybe self-inflicted, maybe societally-pressured, maybe some combination of the two) tendency.

    Through college I was a pretty standard jeans-tee-sneakers gal, with occasional wacky costumey pieces that could be easily dismissed as zany antics. But in the last year or so I've transitioned to a more deliberate style that amusingly enough is in line with the 1950's office-chic aesthetic described in the opening of this article. I love the new look, and feel great in it. The only downside is the frequent pseudo-sniping comments from my husband about how I always look so much better than him and he wishes I would just wear jeans. I resent the implication that it's my responsibility to adjust my mode to match his, with no responsibility for him to do any adjusting as the uncomfortable party in the situation.

    Apologies if this comes off as overly grouchy, as I don't intend to make this a big complainy comment. Husband is a great guy; it just so happens that this is a minor-but-annoying sticking point for me right now. Thank you for leading me to this additional insight on the topic, as there's always more to unpack.

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    1. Zadi, that's understandable that it's a sticking point--I mean, if he's the one who's uncomfortable, why doesn't he switch it up?! Because yes, it goes back to the expectation that women will bear the emotional burden of a relationship. I think even pretty gender-roles-aware couples fall into this--I certainly do, regardless of how feminist-minded various boyfriends have been. In fact, I learned that there was such a term as "emotional work" from a boyfriend I was complaining to about feeling like I was sort of absorbing his emotions on behalf of the couple. His awareness helped, but it wasn't a fix.

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  4. Zadi's comment reminded me that several years ago if I left for work in a skirt and heels with perfume, my DH was convinced I had some sort of affair going on.

    I have watched this dynamic in reverse. My husband made his living as a carpenter and his "style" is very no-nonsense and utilitarian. On those occasions we dress to go out, he is far more concerned with dressing to look like we are a couple than I am. I find this tendency endearing in him.

    But, many is the time we've appeared in public--he in his carpenter garb and me in my professorial look. And neither of us is troubled about that.

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    1. Terri, I've learned to love the "mismatch" thing--the fellow I'm dating has a very casual style, and times I've met up with him after a stint of office work it's been funny, but I sort of love it, because it highlights that it's the connection, not the supposed "fit," that I like about dating him.

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  5. My husband and I have been together for 15 years... when we first met, I dressed in a lot of vintage, unusual pairings, etc. Nothing too wacky, but for the Midwest, it was definitely Different. He was jeans-and-tee, and the way I dressed was part of what he found attractive, as in "She's not like all of the other girls".

    Over the course of the 15 years, he has slowly morphed into a more 'outdoorsy' version on jeans-and-tee, and my style has had to adapt with the fact that wearing vintage every day (or anything that has to be dry-cleaned!) is just not practical with toddlers. I still only own one pair of jeans and refuse to wear Arc'teryx, and he doesn't have a pompadour or own a cardigan, so neither of us has fully converted the other. Each of us, however, has opened the others eyes to elements of the other's style. He does have some vintage ties, and I do now actually own the aforementioned one pair of jeans, which he kind of talked me into. I don't know if our evolving style has just been part of growing up (or growing OLD... my knees can't handle heels all day anymore!!), or am I just getting lazy?

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    1. Jessica, I love this--the evolution "she's not like all the other girls" to something that's more practical but still "you," and how that reflects the life you two have created together. As for laziness versus age, I prefer to think of it as having reached my exasperation point. I just CAN'T wear uncomfortable shoes anymore, and why should I? I'll still wear heels; I'll just make sure they're wearable/walkable, and if a bit of glamour must be sacrificed in doing so, that just means I'll have to bring glamour elsewhere, right?

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  6. I can definitely see that when I was in my longest relationship, I dressed to match my boyfriend. I've not dressed to match anyone else, and I think it's because he was closest to what I enjoyed wearing anyway, although I did become more punk after I met him.

    Everyone else...I haven't. My appearance is too important to me to change it for a boyfriend, because it's very strongly tied to my sense of identity. When I'm going through a rough time where I think I should be less myself and more generically "nice", my appearance slowly changes to reflect more mainstream looks. When I realise that's making me unhappy and snap out of it, I run hard for more piercings, a wilder hair colour, more daring outfits. Going between those two modes of dressing is enough for me without adding dressing for the boyfriend!

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    1. Contrary Kiwi, this makes sense, given what you've commented on elsewhere here about your relationship between fashion/style and self-expression. It seems like that's pretty strongly defined for you, so adding on another person--as you said, that's enough! Interesting that you shift into a look that's more conventional when you're going through a tough time--I've done the opposite in the past. But I think that's because at my core, I don't really wish to express my unconventional side through my appearance (the "stealth weirdo" works well for me...), so it's more like I was searching for something that I didn't really want to find, you know?

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  7. I'm just coming back from clothes-shopping with my husband. Our styles are, I suppose, relatively similar, and I don't think mine has changed much since we started dating... And one of the things that I really appreciate about our relationship is that he takes a significant share of the emotional work on his shoulders- it's tremendously different from most of the relationships I was in before we met.

    On the other hand, I started covering my head/hair after we got married (a traditional Jewish practice for married women- but not unmarried ones). He certainly didn't ask it of me, and it means a lot to me- but it certainly is "dressing my relationship". I often wonder how these issues cooperate/clash with traditional-style dressing- most of the things that I've read about dress and partnership and body positivity come from writers for whom religious standards of modesty aren't concerns.

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    1. Maya, I would LOVE to know more about the intersection of emotional work and head/hair covering (or other aspects of religious modesty). My first thought is that formalizing the component of emotional work might actually relieve some of the anxieties/expectations of the unspoken nature of emotional work, depending on the couple, of course. At the very least, it could be a portal for having conversations about emotional work, since there's something concrete to hitch it to.

      This post was picked up at HuffPo, and while plenty of women there said they'd done the same thing, there were of course the requisite readers who were all, "That's so pathetic!" as though I were endorsing the practice instead of questioning it. But the point is, nobody assumed that any boyfriend had ever asked me to play matchy-match. So women who might alter their dress outside of a religious context might actually be engaging in just as much (or more) emotional work and identity shifting--but they're assumed to be operating from a place of autonomy, whereas I remember you writing about how plenty of people assume you cover your hair because your husband "makes" you. I think that probably says more about people's misunderstanding of religion than it does about gender, but of course the two are connected.

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