Last week I got a long-overdue haircut at a salon I’d never visited before. The stylist asked how I usually do my hair. “Oh, I never really brush it or blow-dry it or use any product,” I said. “Can you just cut it so it looks good without any effort?” He laughed. “Women always want to say they didn’t make an effort and look great anyway.” For women who are into a certain look, the idea of admitting that you spent 30 minutes washing and tousling your hair and putting in products to make it look dirty, then another 30 selecting the perfect worn-in denim and slouchy T-shirt, then another 30 applying mascara and re-sculpting your not-overplucked eyebrows, is decidedly out of fashion. Beyoncé does not sing, “I woke up and spent some time in hot rollers and then did my makeup like this.”
It’s this impulse — to pretend we aren’t working to achieve a look or meet any standard — that makes websites like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and Blake Lively’s Preserve so easy to mock. Gwyneth and Blake did not wake up like this. Their sites blend the aspirational perfection of Martha Stewart with the life-guru platitudes of Oprah and add a materialistic twist of One Kings Lane. They are about “curating a life.” They consciously uncouple. And consciously decorate cupcakes. And consciously select fonts. Gwyneth’s goal is “to help her readers save time, simplify, and feel inspired.” Blake is here to “inspire your home, your style, and your tongue.” They may reduce their mission to mere “inspiration” and embrace the same easy-breezy aesthetic that a lot of women in their demographic do, but their guidebooklike sites betray them. So do the price tags. Describing exactly how to achieve that just-thrown-together effect promotes the opposite of effortlessness.
The inescapable fact is that it takes a lot of money and time to be effortlessly chic. Paltrow and Lively are catering to a certain type of woman — usually upper-middle-class, often white, with cultural clout — who happens to be particularly susceptible to the “effortless” trap. It isn’t just about hair or clothes. The desire to come off like you aren’t trying too hard extends to most areas of life typically thought of as the domain of women. Home décor: “Those vintage end tables? Oh, I picked them up at a flea market.” (Don’t mention that it took months to find the perfect sofa, and it was so expensive it practically required a second mortgage.) Workout routines: “I just do a little yoga and try to take the stairs.” (Don’t mention the personal trainer.) Relationships: “We just click, you know?” (Don’t mention the couples’ therapist.) Outwardly, everything is easy.
Sites like Preserve and Goop offer a potent mix of consumerism and etiquette that isn’t materially different from what Martha and Real Simple and other women’s magazines have sold for years. But in the years since those magazines were launched, something has shifted. Martha always made it look easy, but she acknowledged that everyone else was going to have to work for it. That’s what made her the lifestyle guru and the rest of us subscribers. Lively is reluctant to claim the mantle. In her editor’s letter, she writes, “I’m no editor, no artisan, no expert. And certainly no arbiter of what you should buy, wear, or eat.” Even she is claiming that her life has sort of just … come together. Much of her desired audience is, like her, probably ashamed to admit they’re working to achieve a carefree life, and that they’re willing to pay for it.
To unironically take lifestyle advice from the likes of Lively is to acknowledge not only that you’re working to meet a certain social and cultural standard, but that you might need some help. You’re admitting that it doesn’t come naturally to you. A friend was recently scandalized when she found out that someone had been Instagramming homemade dinners without disclosing they were actually Blue Apron meals. Women have internalized the feminist message that we’re beautiful just the way we are, and we accept that everyone’s life is imperfect, but still can’t stop judging each other — and ourselves. We don’t want to acknowledge what a big role material concerns play in that judgment. So we end up doing much of the same work our foremothers did to appear pretty and stylish and well-rounded, but we pretend it isn’t work. We pretend we aren’t even doing it. This tension is reflected in the annoyed, dismissive reaction to Preserve.
There’s a refreshing pop-culture counterpoint, though. If anyone is willing to admit she definitely did not wake up like this, it’s Kim Kardashian. She’s so unashamed, in fact, that she’s created an entire iPad game based on her efforts. Kardashian is not just here to “inspire.” The goal of the game is to learn how to make it to the A-list by getting the superficial stuff right — wearing the right dress and making the right small talk. “Kim K skills,” as Kanye calls them, are all about being ruthlessly strategic and working hard to achieve the life you want. And not being afraid to admit that’s what you’re doing.
Kardashian is peddling a path to happiness and success that is no less materialistic than the one promoted by Paltrow or Lively; she’s just up-front about it. Even if you don’t have any desire to take your infant for a walk while sporting glittery eyeliner and a tuxedo jacket taped to your bare, spray-tanned breasts, her embrace of artifice is kind of a relief. Her look screams “effort.” She’s wealthy and beautiful like Lively and Paltrow — but at least she’s not acting like everything came easy.