Long Read,  Personal,  Personal Finance

The Costs of Being A Woman: Why I’m Choosing Not To Pay Them

This post comes after a lot of thought. Thoughts that I’ve mulled over for most of my twenties. Thoughts that have led to purchasing decisions, that have led to where I am today.

The day after International Women’s Day, I was at a baby shower thrown for a heavily pregnant woman, who was a literal stranger to me. There I was, no idea who anyone was. To make the situation more awkward, I sat across a chatty young mom holding her 9-month-old girl precariously in her arms.

“Only have children when you’re really ready for children,” she warned me. That struck me as odd coming from a new mom. In the past, when confronted by women who sought that traditional husband-and-three-kids model, they say something different.

“When your turn ah?”

Most women root for you to experience wifehood and motherhood the way they do. To have someone advise you against rushing this life-changing decision was refreshing. Having a child is an immense financial decision but many women go into motherhood without thinking about the costs. Both monetary and otherwise. But they do it anyway because it’s what they’re supposed to do. It’s what society tells them they should do.

Motherhood is one of the many areas women bear the cost of society’s expectations.

Being a woman isn’t easy. Throughout my life, I never felt comfortable in my skin as a woman. It doesn’t mean I don’t identify as a woman. But it’s the things that people say I should do because I’m a woman that I didn’t identify with.

These things add up to a financial cost women take on because they feel like they don’t have a choice in the matter. Because if they didn’t conform, then they’re not women enough.

As a demographic, women contribute substantially to consumer spending, effectively helping a country’s economy to flourish. Globally, women controlled 64% of household spending.

That means women are responsible for growing a company profits, facilitating employment and helping to line the pockets of rich CEOs.

It’s no wonder then that companies are incentivized to market to women. Everything from clothing, makeup, skincare down to household appliances, baby products and cleaning supplies.

It’s well-document how companies and brands prey on women’s insecurities.

God forbid a woman ages, right?

Even today, brands are changing tack because of the shifting narrative around women’s idea of self-worth. Instead of attacking women’s flaws, brands jump on the bandwagon to celebrate it. Wanna sell some sneakers today? Make women feel empowered!

Not gonna lie, this ad made me feel hella empowered. See, emotional appeal works!

Spending Money to be More Woman

Some time ago, I found myself spending so much money on all the things I need to qualify as a socially acceptable woman. Even then, I still felt that whatever I did wasn’t good enough. Every month, my credit card statement had an alarming number of unnecessary purchases; clothing, makeup, facial treatments, waxing, skincare, the list goes on.

When I was working in banking, I felt the pressure to buy luxury brands and jewelry. I even convinced myself a branded handbag was necessary because all the women I worked with had one.

After a while, it all became too much. Being a woman was so overwhelming.

Redefining Womanhood

I don’t know how or when I started to reject these expectations. I suppose it was a gradual process after I left my job. Suddenly, the pressure to dress and look a certain way was no longer there.

Working from home didn’t require me to wear makeup. I didn’t need to wear branded clothes to produce quality work. It freed up time and energy to focus on more important things like my mental health, gaining more knowledge, and creating things.

Then, I started actively choosing my financial burden of being a woman. I’m not immune to the trappings of societal pressure, sometimes it’s hard for me to stick by my choices. But these choices helped reduce my monthly expenditure. Other choices help prevent future financial costs that I can’t afford. And finally, the tougher, significant choices I am making will ultimately shape my life going forward.

Today I’d like to share with you all the costs I’ve incurred trying to fit into the “perfect woman” mold and the choices I’m making now to reject this ideal and feel more comfortable in my skin.

Shaving, Waxing and Hair Removal

You didn’t see that one coming, did ya? I don’t think many women stop to think very seriously about their relationship with body hair. Because I didn’t at first. I started shaving my legs and underarms when I was 16 years old. As I grew older, removing pubic hair was added to the whole routine.

I buy a packet of cheap disposable razors (approx. RM10 per pack) every two months at the pharmacy. Sometimes, I buy hair removal foam (RM20 a bottle) that burns the hair off your body. If I’m feeling fancy, I pay a lady (about RM200) to pour hot wax on me and then rip it off. Once, I even signed up for a laser hair removal treatment (RM500 for 10 sessions – this was with a Groupon).

Not only do I lose money to this process, but I also lose time. I shaved maybe twice a week, taking up an additional 15 minutes in the shower getting rid of my body hair. Going for a wax meant having to drive to the salon and find parking for a 15-minute appointment.

All this because why? Because being a woman meant being hairless. Look, I know men also shave body and facial hair too. But they don’t face the pressure to get rid of their hair as women do. Be honest with yourself, if you see a woman in shorts with lushious leg hair, how would you react?

If the woman in the ad had bulu ketiak, how would you react?

This amount of upkeep gets really tiring. And I’ll be completely honest with you. I LIKE having body hair. Hah, that took a turn, didn’t it? But it’s true! I go through phases where I really enjoyed growing out my body hair because I liked the way it felt against my skin. However, I felt extremely self-conscious about it because everybody else thought it was weird.

Now I try to give less fucks about what people think about my body hair. Depending on how I feel, I let my body hair grow out. I even wear skirts and shorts during that phase which indirectly help build my body confidence.

When I do feel like shaving, I opted for the old school stainless steel safety razors (RM20 with a pack of 10 blades). Not only is it more cost-effective, but it’s also environmentally-friendly.

Grooming

On the same tangent as body hair, I used to spend obscene amounts of money on grooming. This included:

  • Hair treatments/colouring/straightening : RM200 to RM300 per session
  • Manicures and pedicures – RM60 to RM120 per session
  • Eyebrow threading – RM10 to RM15 per session
  • Body scrubs and massages – RM90 to RM150 per session
  • Facials – RM200 minimum per session or THOUSANDS over the years

I got sucked into the health and wellness spa experience pretty early on in my working life. The women I worked with LOVED to go for a massage or a mani-pedi. I’m not going to lie, I liked it too.But it burned a hole in my wallet way too often. 80% of the time, these expenses were unnecessary.

I’ve cut out most of these luxuries from my budget now. I fall easily for the multipackage deals beauty spas sell me on so I avoid these places like the plague now. But I plan to continue spending on facials because acne is a recurring issue that’s happening well into my late twenties.

The time cost applies here too. For example, a trip to the hair salon used to take 3 hours because I felt that having straight hair was better than my naturally wavy hair. You know why? Because I grew up with ads like this playing on the TV. ALL. THE. GODDAMN. TIME.

Who wouldn’t want straight hair after watching this?

Now, I have short hair. I feel more comfortable with short hair even though means I go to the hair salon more frequently to maintain the length. It’s a cost I’m okay bearing because I save a little more on hair products and shampoos. I don’t own a hair dryer or even a hairbrush anymore (I don’t know if this is a good thing or not).

Ultimately, I rather pay for a hairstyle that I love than continuing to conform to what society thinks hair should look like for women.

Skincare and Makeup

If I’ve spent thousands on facials, I’ve also spent thousands on skincare as well. Acne is my biggest battle. Every time I think I’ve got a handle on my skin, 3 weeks later it breaks out like nobody’s business. When my stress levels go through the roof, you’ll see a new pimple magically appear almost every day.

I’m extremely self-conscious about this and it shows in my spending habits. I will try anything and everything to help manage the situation on my face. Hence, it’s very easy to market facial skincare to me.

I did so many things, from the 10-step Korean skincare routine to just using one natural soap bar. Nothing has worked so far over the long-term. I dread that I’d have to deal with acne for the rest of my life.

Very recently, I’ve switched to prescribed medication to manage the acne. I put off taking medication for so long because of its unwanted side-effects on mental health. But desperate times. I haven’t seen results yet since it’s still early days and I’m really hoping and praying to God that it works eventually.

Naturally, as I care way too much about protecting my skin, I’ve stopped wearing makeup. On special occasions, I’ll do a full-face makeup and on some days I’ll dab on concealer to hide some of the harsh redness but I’ve gone completely makeup-free for a while now.

Fast Fashion Clothes

2013 until 2016 was the height of my online shopping addiction. I would blow my budget on cheap clothes on Zalora and buy insanely impractical high heel shoes that I never wore. I went with the trend that every girl was hooked onto at the time. There was a crop top phase, an A-line skirt phase, the bodycon dress phase, you name it. I drop RM200 to RM300 monthly buying clothes online.

Since last year, I’ve made a conscious choice to shop more deliberately for clothes. That meant no online shopping at all. I would intentionally wait a long time to buy a piece I really wanted. When I can see myself wearing this piece for a long time or repeatedly, then and only then, I will walk into a shopping mall to look for it.

I still try to buy cheap clothes but I make the effort to see and feel the material to gauge its longevity. My style has also shifted quite dramatically because of this. I stick with neutral colors and prints, staple pieces and regular silhouettes. I wear more jeans and t-shirt than dresses for more comfort. And I own only four pairs of shoes now.

My closet used to be stuffed with clothes, most I hardly wear. After I Marie Kondo-ed my wardrobe, 70% of my closet is empty space. I want to keep it that way for as long as I can.

The above sections were unnecessary costs women take to fit a certain physical appearance. These can easily be reduced by spending more deliberately and feeling more confident and comfortable with yourself.

But what about the costs that cannot be reduced? What about the costs we bear because of how we’re built biologically?

Let’s Talk About Periods

Over the course of a woman’s life, how many sanitary pads or tampons does she go through? Let’s take the best case scenario: light flow, short periods, RM15 for a packet of pads. That means women spend at minimum RM180 a year just to manage her period. And I’m sure my assumptions aren’t accurate because I feel like I spend more than that. Let’s not forget the environmental impact of using disposable pads.

An appealing alternative is using the menstrual cup. I’ve bought one but I’m still having trouble getting the hang of using it. So, like, I’m working on it.

Aside from the actual monthly bleeding, there are hidden costs of periods nobody wants to talk about. Periods affect my work productivity. PMS is a real thing and it affects your mental and emotional state and by extension, your ability to be productive. Furthermore, the side effects such as cramping, stress eating, acne, bloatedness affect your self-confidence. It’s just not a pretty sight, folks. And women are expected to put up with this and still perform in life like everything is fine and dandy.

Tampons are luxury items, eh?

Fuck Bras

Bras are expensive. I hate wearing them. They really annoying and uncomfortable. Free. The. Goddamn. Nipple.

There are more blessed women who definitely need to wear bras for support and comfort. But why does it have to be so bloody expensive?

RM150 just to support your girls!

Women’s Environmental Burden

Anti-consumption campaigns tend to be short-sighted. It’s easy to place the burden of environmental responsibility on consumers and shift the blame away from businesses and policymakers who can affect substantial change when it comes to single-use plastic.

I’d like to point out that the burden of environmental responsibility weighs more heavily on women. Mothers and women do most of the grocery shopping, cooking, and household cleaning. The extra effort demanded to live zero-waste is just added onto a long to-do list women inadvertently have called the “mental load”.

Moving Through Life as a Woman

Lately, I watch fellow women go through the ABC’s of life. One by one, they get married and have children. While I’m happy for them, I’m just as happy to sit on the sidelines. It’s just not something I see for myself at all.

Not once did I imagine myself walking down the aisle, dropping almost RM100k on a wedding that I wouldn’t even enjoy. I’m not against the idea entirely, if I’m being completely honest. I used to joke that the only way someone will persuade me to tie the knot was to tell me about all the tax breaks I’ll get. But as a woman, I feel like I will sacrifice more to accommodate a partner, especially if that partner is a man.

Finally, there’s the prospect of motherhood.

And so, we’ve come full circle. When I sat there hearing those words, “Only have children when you’re really ready for children,” I thought to myself probably for the millionth time.

I never want children.

Not once did I ever craved having children or being a mother. Nothing about it appeals to me at all. As much as I try and as many babies as I hold, that maternal instinct just doesn’t kick in. And I’m very certain about this choice right now. But I struggle with this certainty. I doubt this certainty. Because I cannot unlearn the idea that has been implanted in my brain growing up: You’re selfish if you choose not to be a mother.

It is hard to shake that accusation, even if no one has said it to you directly. Recently, I read an article that made me feel like I wasn’t abnormal or selfish for my decision. And the relief I felt because of it. There are many costs to consider, as a woman, when you choose to be a mother. The cost of pregnancy, what it does to your body, the clothes you have to buy, the medical checkups, going on maternity leave, the cost of going into labour, baby clothes, breast pumps, the cost of recovering from pregnancy, all the stressful hours spent taking care of a human being, the choice between leaving the workforce to take care of your child or paying money for a nanny. I can go on.

This video takes a nuanced view of the things we should consider when deciding to have children.

I’ve been around enough pregnant women and mothers to know the sacrifices they’ve made to raise a child far outweighs the sacrifices their husbands made. And that just never seemed fair to me at all. Maybe if I really did feel that instinct, like them, that sacrifice would be worth it.

If you want a funny take on motherhood, I suggest watching Ali Wong’s Netflix special.

Final Thoughts

Look, society places a lot of expectations on women, most of the time subconsciously. We, as women, grow up internalizing these expectations. My mother used to scold me; don’t sit like that, don’t swear, don’t wear that, don’t do this, don’t do that. When I ask “Why not?” defiantly, she’d always have the same response:

Because you’re a girl.

I never liked that response. But I still struggled to fit in, still struggled to define myself a certain way. But today, these are things that I feel strongly about and have invested time to actively question as a woman. Which is why this post is really long. And I know that men could also share this struggle as well.

What I do hope is that we recognize there’s no right way of being a woman or a man, that we be kinder to each other and respect each other’s choices.

Thoughts? Leave ’em in the comments. You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

7 Comments

  • Suraya

    This article made me go fuck yeah

    It takes a lot of self awareness to recognise the outside forces shaping one’s identity. It takes a lot of courage to decide to go against it

    Rock on Nicole!

  • Isabel

    Words cannot express how great I felt reading this post. In a sea of the words “female empowerment” being thrown around recklessly, this post genuinely embodies it. I love that the whole thing was written in a non-accusatory tone and it represents how you personally perceive what is necessary and what isn’t to make you happy as a woman. Often, our greatest enemies are our own “sisters” because of the pressures we put on one another.

    I can relate to so many of the instances you wrote about but I would just like to highlight one. I knew at 13 that I didn’t want children. No one, my mother included, believed that it was a conviction so strong it would stay with me consistently. I would always be told that the “motherly instinct” would arrive some day. No.one.believed.me. And I don’t think anyone wanted to. I just turned 45 and I can safely say that even as I approach the spectre of menopause, I have never had the brooding urge. Not once. I adore babies and kids. I actually relate to them very well. But I have never desired to have any of my own.

    I wanted to just put that out there because there are so few of us who feel this way and being in the minority can feel extremely isolating. Sometimes the pressure gets too much no matter how strong we are mentally. It’s nice to know that someone out there feels the same way. A tiny bit of solidarity in a world of resistance. And the “certainty” can indeed last a lifetime. Should that certainty diminish and one day, you feel ready for the responsibility to nurture a new life, then by all means! I completely agree with the lady who gave that sage advice of waiting till one is truly ready to embrace the responsibility of motherhood.

    Decades may stand between you and I but the quest for female liberation remains the same no matter what age you are in the society we live in. I will have a whole new battle once menopause hits, I imagine. Wish me luck!

    • Nicole

      Thank you Isabel, I feel so very comforted hearing your perspective on this. I fear the “realizing too late” or “your biological clock is ticking” line of thought that gets repeated every time I say I don’t feel that maternal instinct. But I’m grateful that you shared with me that you feel the same way at now as you did when you were younger. I don’t feel as insecure about the choice now. The future is indeed uncertain but if/when the time comes, at least I know it would be a conscious choice. Thank you for stopping by and reading. Good luck!

  • Mrs Money

    I loved this! I cheered at every section, and resonated with so much of it.

    I started working from home recently too, and reading your post made me realize how much I must have saved from wearing less makeup, buying less work clothes, less travel, generally giving less of a crap about what I’m expected to look like.

    Totally agree about the unfair cost of just being a woman in the world today. We need to shed more light on this additional form of insidious oppression we have to deal with, amongst the many others that hold women back.

    Rock on!

    • Nicole

      Thanks Mrs Money!

      Happy to help raise awareness on this & help support women who choose the costs they want to hear despite what society tells them.

      Best of luck to you!

  • Joelynn Chin

    I tried a new place for a haircut yesterday. The stylist was rude. “Grey hair, hair loss… like sotong (squid)…”. She tried to sell me hair treatment and hair colouring. I flat out refused. Nope! I just wanted a haircut. I stopped dyeing my hair on purpose. Learning to embrace it and feeling inspired by the women @grombre on Instagram.

    On menstruation: I use cloth pads when I’m at home or will reach home before my next pad change. Don’t like the idea of carrying a bloodied pad around. It’s not as icky as it sounds. Just squeeze under running water in the shower until the water is clear, then give it a soak.

    On children: Never wanted them. I’m too selfish. Can’t imagine putting another person first over the next 20 years (if you’re lucky your kids don’t still depend on you in their adult life). I’m well aware that being a mother is a huge responsibility, and I don’t believe in sub-contracting out childcare. I am also pragmatic. I don’t want to deliver a child into a world that is running low on resources (clean water, healthy food, land, etc).

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