When I was 17, a (male) friend of mine told me I was "not a girl, just a guy with long hair." I thought it was the best compliment ever. I was the type of girl whose friends were mostly guys and I was proud of it. I'd sit around listening to Incubus, playing video games, and making jokes about my own boobs, confident in the knowledge that I wasn't a typical girl, just a guy with long hair.
If being a "guy with long hair" was the best compliment I could get, the second best was being "low-maintenance."
Low-maintenance is what men say they want in a woman. A low-maintenance woman is "laid back, chilled out, drama free." She's not "picky." In When Harry Met Sally, Harry lays out the appeal of the low-maintenance woman perfectly, chastising Sally for ordering her salad dressing on the side. "I just want it the way I want it," she says. "I know," he responds, "high maintenance."
Recently, there's been a cultural move for women to embrace being "low-maintenance," with websites like BuzzFeed and Elite Daily celebrating the virtues of the makeup-hating, beer-and-pizza-loving low-maintenance lady. The term is similar to the famous "cool girl" archetype in Gone Girl, the "hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping." A low-maintenance woman isn't a girl: She's just a guy with long hair and she loves it. A low-maintenance woman is low-maintenance without even trying.
High-maintenance women act like they care. To be high maintenance is to take hours getting ready, own too much makeup and too many shoes, and seek attention. The phrases "high maintenance" and "low maintenance" are used primarily to describe two things: women and machines. Both require upkeep, and the more work that has to go into them, the more broken they are assumed to be.
Men want a low-maintenance woman that looks high-maintenance; a beautiful car that never needs a tune up. In Gone Girl, Amy Dunne argues that girl doesn't exist, that it's just an act women are willing to put on for a man's sake. But the world is not that simple.
While I often prefer T-shirts and sneakers to other options and enjoy drinking straight whiskey and eating pizza, I also like showing off my boobs whenever possible. I love pop music and experimenting with makeup and wearing dresses that make me look like a pin-up girl, things that would be associated with a high-maintenance type, or just with women in general.
When I was a teenager, I liked all those things. But there were also things I didn't like, like watching Mean Girls only to pause during the "Jingle Bell Rock" scene so everyone else in the room could try to see Lindsay Lohan's crotch in a short skirt. But I kept my mouth shut about that in front of my guy friends. They might start thinking I was high-maintenance.
Using "high-maintenance" as an insult for women is another way of devaluing them. It's a quick way to cut them down the second they do anything you don't like. And this is what sets women up to fail. Low-maintenance women are just one moment of not being "chill" away from accusations of being high-maintenance. That's how tenuous the distinction is between the two.
It's the same instinct that has people screeching about female "vocal fry" and "uptalk," while a man's husky voice is unremarked upon. It's why people clutch their pearls over whether celebrities are wearing too much makeup or have had cosmetic surgery. If a woman does anything to distinguish herself from the fold — whether that means wearing lipstick or voicing strong opinions — it makes her difficult or prissy. It means she becomes harder to "maintain." The mere state of womanhood is considered an affect, a glamour on top of the default of maleness.
A large part of the high-maintenance/low-maintenance dichotomy is about physical appearance, as a woman is judged however she presents herself. More than anything, though, high-maintenance and low-maintenance are about personality. Makeup or no makeup, dressing on the side or dressing on top of an entire pizza, the most high-maintenance thing a woman can do is put her own agenda ahead of someone else's. From birth, women are taught to put the needs of others above their own. It's when a woman acts on her own desires that she becomes high-maintenance.
"Is it always or / is it never and?" That's a line from the Sondheim musical Into The Woods where the Baker's Wife sings about whether to take one of two paths ahead of her. Then she comes up with a compromise: "Why not both instead? / There's the answer if you're clever."
As a teenager, I thought I hated high-maintenance women like my classmates, who giggled and wore push-up bras and tons of makeup. But what I really hated was the patriarchy, for making it so difficult to be both high-maintenance and low-maintenance. For women, it is always "or," and never "and."
For so long, my tastes were defined by the boys I surrounded myself with. If they thought PCs were better than Macs, I thought PCs were better than Macs. If they told me I was just missing the point of The Godfather, I believed them. But at some point, I realized I could put my own desires first, before those of the boys I hung out with. There was immediate pushback. All of a sudden, male friends were making fun of me for taking ten extra minutes to get ready, or for admitting that I found Halo incredibly boring. I had transformed from low-maintenance to high-maintenance before their very eyes, and they seemed confused about that.
I'm both high and low maintenance. I like wearing sneakers and cutoff shorts and The Blues Brothers. Given the choice of wine or beer I'll choose wine. I can't stand The Godfather and I'll continue to wear bright lipstick no matter how many times my husband makes a face at kissing me. These all exist within me, because I allow them to. I don't let anyone but myself define what I want. That's what makes me high-maintenance, and I have no problem with that.