The Vagenda

Why the Term ‘High-Maintenance’ is a Colossal Load of Bullshit


Recently, I had a proper manicure in a nail and waxing salon. It was my first time in such an establishment because I’m very scared of having hot wax dribbled on me and then pulled from my quite delicate, pathetic skin. This isn’t the only reason though. I’ve always associated beauty salons with women who care a lot about how they look. I’ve been guilty of thinking that ‘low-maintenance’ is an adjective that can tell you a lot about a person, and my not wearing lip gloss somehow means I’m down-to-earth and valid as a human being. Then I wandered into this salon to give my friend some pre-leg wax moral support and found that all of my prejudices took a sweet-smelling, colourful, glossy beating.

My nails were done by a woman wearing a lot of make-up, a hot pink top and a dark tan. We chatted a bit whilst she filed and buffed and painted. I was really relieved that she was easy to talk to because the idea of someone faffing with my hands in stony silence wasn’t a hugely welcome prospect – it taps into my middle class anxieties about people doing things for me while I sit on my arse (every time a waiter or waitress speaks to me I thank them about eighteen times, for fear of seeming ungrateful). She mentioned that her mum had gone away for the weekend and rather than inviting anyone round for hard drinking, as she would have when she was sixteen, she was looking forward to finishing reading Philomena. Then she asked me if I’d read any good books lately, so I told her I was doing an English Literature degree so no, definitely not. And it turned out that she’d read nearly all the classics I’ve read, and more besides. She could talk in depth about Dracula whilst she painted my nails ‘black cherry’. She was smart, she was funny, and she made my nails look fucking fantastic. I was ashamed of myself when I left because I knew exactly what assumptions I’d made about her when I first sat down, hands outstretched. I assumed that she wasn’t as educated as me, that she wasn’t as well-read as me and all because she was wearing more make-up? I’m a tool, basically, but at least I’ve learnt my lesson now.

When a woman is described as ‘high-maintenance’, it’s nearly always a criticism. According to an example on Urban Dictionary, “high-maintenance is primarily used to refer to attractive straight women” (Well shit, sorry for fulfilling your definition of attractive TOO much), or “a gluttonous queen, narcissistic and mean”. If you’re labelled as ‘high-maintenance’ it seems to remove any other part of your personality. If you like showing your cleavage off and you’ve got really expensive hair extensions, then there’s no way you can be smart or kind or really easy to get on with and actually not ‘high-maintenance’ at all. And if there are any of the ‘what about men blah blah winge’ brigade reading this, then think about any man you might know of who waxes his chest or wears fake tan. He might have the piss taken out of him or be called a tit, but it doesn’t lead to the complete and utter defamation of his character. The aftermath of being called a tit is about four seconds long.

‘High-maintenance’ doesn’t translate as ‘She really takes care of herself, she’s always impeccably dressed and presented’, it has way too much baggage. It translates as ‘She takes forever to get ready, she’s such hard work’. It’s ammunition used against women. It’s a reference to her being a glossy haired tyrant who insists on really expensive presents or special attention. And then there’s the ‘low-maintenance’ crowd, like myself, who can sometimes end up feeling a bit smug and self-satisfied, as though we’re different to the ‘high-maintenance’ women.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a problem with our readiness to rip hair off our bodies, and hide all of those natural things that have somehow been deemed ‘unattractive’. When I indulge in Channel 4 shock-documentaries about boob jobs gone wrong and arse implants, I can see a lot of mental illness going on. If you want your arse to look as firm as a Tempur mattress, you probably have a dim view of your natural body, and so your state of mind probably isn’t great. So body modification is incredibly problematic from a feminist perspective, especially when it’s rammed down our throats in the media like it’s normal and expected. So, personally, I don’t think I’ve really worked out where that line is between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ or ‘actually that’s okay’ and ‘this shit’s really misogynistic’. What I do know though is we can debate this body hair thing as much as we want, but it’s still just as bad to look down on women who do want to wax themselves as it is for some bloke to lament his girlfriend’s fanny hair and insist she get rid of it in the first place.

I felt comfortable in that salon. It was nice to be in an all-female space (yes, they do treatments for men, but there weren’t any in at the time) for a while and talk to other women about things we happened to be interested in. It was a bit like being in the Destiny’s Child video for ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’. And SO many different kinds of women walked in. Different ages, different races, potentially different sexualities. I’ve found a diverse space full of like-minded people who will make my nails look beautiful at a very reasonable price. I think we need to stop this vilification of girly, feminine things. I don’t know why I wanted Barbies when I was little, or why I like wearing heels now that I’m a grown woman. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, I don’t know if my family ever consciously or unconsciously gendered me, or if it was adverts on TV or things I saw other children doing. Having a particular attitude to the way I look, however, hasn’t made me any less of a feminist. You can have both, you can definitely BE both.

One of my best friends and I are trying to reclaim the word ‘slut’ to make it complimentary (between ourselves, we’re not about to go calling strangers ‘sluts’, they understandably wouldn’t know what we were trying to do without a lot of no doubt drunken, incoherent explanation on our part). Maybe we should all try to reclaim the loaded term that is ‘high-maintenance’ and remove the misogyny from it. It now simply means ‘taking pride in one’s appearance, wanting to look a certain way’. And that could mean anything. That could mean false nails and eyelashes, or it could mean you’re a cyber punk.  All I know is, no one should be made to feel like shit for caring what they look like.


17 thoughts on “Why the Term ‘High-Maintenance’ is a Colossal Load of Bullshit

  1. Admittedly my understanding of the term comes directly from When Harry Met Sally, but I always thought ‘high-maintenance’ roughly meant ‘attention-seeking’ or ‘needy’ and never realised it could apply to appearance as well. Still bullshit, whichever definition you pick.

  2. Maybe it is a generational / locational / class difference, but like GM I must quote the fantastic Inigo Montoya

    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    To me, to say someone is high maintenance is someone who requires a lot of YOUR time and effort to maintain the status quo. Apparently the Urban Dictionary thinks the same:

    and from Wiktionary (

    He has this incredibly high-maintenance girlfriend; if he doesn’t tell her that he loves her every five minutes, she tends to break down into hysterical depressive weepy fits.

  3. I enjoyed the article until ‘boob jobs’ were likened as symptomatic of mental illness. This is a generalisation based entirely on an insular opinion; it appears that the stereotypical assumptions made initially about people in beauty salons extends to the remit of those who choose to have cosmetic surgery. Rather than allow a channel 4 documentary to shape your understanding, why not continue to practice what you preach and interact with people who have experienced, and been involved in, the process.
    Also, why does having a dim view of your natural body imply that your state of mind isn’t great? Many people exercise in an attempt to tone up and achieve ‘an arse as firm as a Tempur mattress’, yet you seem to pigeonhole the aims and intentions of cosmetic surgery as desperate and distinct. In order to write and contribute meaningfully to this area, you surely must acknowledge that there are many complexities that need to be unpicked and uncovered. You won’t gain a nuanced understanding by watching TV propaganda!

  4. Oooh, glad it’s not just my friendship group that go around insulting one another in endearment. My gal pals all refer to the group collective as ‘my slags’

    ‘Slags night out’
    ‘Slags on tour’
    ‘I miss my slags’

    Just lovely.

  5. “High Maintenance” women are called “High Maintenance” because they most of the time consider “Low maintenance” girls like shit, because they don’t have the need to make the effort these “sluts” make and accept their defaults. They are also often dumb and superficial (sorry to say that but it’s true), it’s the type of girl you fuck, not the type of girl you make love to. And actually the time spent in bed is also often not really great.
    So, women, stay natural, it’s like that that we like you, we don’t give a shit about your nails.
    Best regards,
    A man

  6. I was seeing a girl who was “high-maintenance”, turns out she is a complete nut job who was incapable of anything more complicated than making toast or tying her shoelaces. Terms like this are important as without them how on earth are men meant to establish and categorize the standard of a women? with the points system frowned upon and slavery illegal without these standardized terms we would be lost in a sea of over overgrown vaginas and women voters.

  7. Going to have to agree with what others have already said – this isn’t how I’ve heard “high-maintenance” used.

    Indulge in all the manicures, hair extensions, tanning, waxing and whatever else it is people do nowadays all you want, that’s not “high-maintenance” in itself, that’s just stereotypically “girly”, I guess. Nothing wrong with that, though it’s not my personal cup of tea.

    If you indulge in the above grooming and expect someone else to shell out for it or spend hours waiting around for you to get ready, if you routinely cover every towel and bedsheet in the house (including other people’s) with fake tan and/or hair dye, if you expect someone else to take care of all the boring day to day stuff like housework or shopping while you get your nails done, all while acting as if the people around you should somehow be grateful for it, THEN you’re high-maintenance. It’s not the beauty treatments themselves, it’s the attitude. You could be high maintenance because you’re a diva (in the theatrical sense) or an artist, or an athlete, or really if there’s any all-consuming thing in your life that you take excessive pride in, I suppose.

  8. Also, it always bugs me when people make “taking care of oneself” synonymous with “having beauty treatments and wearing makeup.” I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but the implication is that those of us who choose not to wear makeup or remove our body hair or whatever else are somehow neglecting ourselves. Puts me in mind of the whole “women need to wear makeup to look professional” line of bullshit.

  9. I wouldn’t equate the term ‘high maintenance’ with time spent on personal appearance. It seems to me to be a phrase used more to describe a woman who is emotionally needy, attention seeking, etc. (Though it is definitely derogatory, and used an insult.)

    But I do agree that some hold the unfortunate opinion that if women pay attention to hair/nails/make-up etc. then we are shallow and unintelligent, or not ‘feminist’ enough.

    I don’t have a problem with taking a feminist stance on things while wearing make-up and with my hair curled and a good bra on that makes my boobs look great. I get frustrated with my friends who recoil from the word ‘feminist’, but I know that they associate it with man-hating, bra-burning, angry women and that this is a group they don’t see themselves as part of. The thing is, they ARE feminists, but they have a limited definition of the word. (And I think Vagenda is great in starting to address and redefine that.) Curling our eyelashes (if we want to) doesn’t invalidate our opinions, it doesn’t remove our right to be taken seriously.

    The one thing that bugs me about this is WHY. In particular, your comment about high heels struck me. I love getting dressed up and wearing heels, the higher the better. But why? Because of the response I get from men? I hope that’s not the reason, or at least I hope it’s not the only reason. Because they make my legs look good? But this is according to a specific image of what a woman ‘should’ look like. I can’t quite figure it out, I just know that when I have my heels on I feel confident. I like to think that it puts me in control of a heightened sexuality. I feel and act more sensually, but I don’t necessarily act on that. I don’t want or need to go home with anyone at the end of the night, but I am in touch with that sexual side of myself (more than usual) and there’s definitely something empowering about that. Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

    And I don’t understand about wanting to reclaim the word slut. This could just end in a situation where women are allowed to use the word, but men aren’t (as is the case with ‘the n-word’ now, where whether you are ‘allowed’ to say it or not depends on the colour of your skin). I’d rather we all just acknowledged it as an offensive word and tried not to use it. But I’m happy to hear arguments otherwise!

  10. Speaking of high maintenance, there are plenty of women out there that are very high maintenance. And they ‘re such LOSERS too.

  11. I love the fact that you’re reclaiming the word ‘slut’. I’ve been called an ‘unapologetic slut’ by many a feminist friend over the years since turning 30 (I’m happily single but enjoy the occasional hook-up with a younger guy once in a while). I’m proud of the title and never once took it as an insult. Glad to see others doing the same.

  12. It is a real good thing that these women today didn’t have to work as hard as the women did years ago, they would’ve had it real tough especially with their false eyelashes and fingernails.