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Men can save their faux-concern for women who smoke

06 Feb 2019

Image: Javie Huxley

Women’s hobbies, habits and appearances have long been policed, but the internet means we’re finding more direct ways to make women feel shit about themselves – especially for women who smoke. I found this out recently when I decided it was time to go on my first online date. I fired up the dating apps because I wanted to be flattered and to be flirtatious . I was curious of this world I hadn’t yet been part of (I had plenty of friends who were always on dates through them) – but I didn’t find a date. Instead, I received a lot weird and unsolicited messages about my lifestyle. A couple of days into this new digital dating realm, I received a message that said: “if you quit smoking you’d be perfect.”

I completely understand why smoking is considered unattractive – aside from the significant health risks, there’s the smell and the effect on your teeth, hair and nails, all of which are pretty grim. Smokers are aware of this. And hey, if you’re not into blackened lungs, you’re not into them. What troubled me, was a total stranger feeling compelled to let me know that I’d be more attractive if I didn’t smoke. That he felt I had to know, that without my cigarettes I’d have his approval.

It reminded of the nights out in the smoking area of nightclubs, where lads would approach me with this sort of faux-paternalism and barely-masked disappointment saying something like: “why do you smoke? It’s bad for you.” There was no genuine concern for my health – I’d just taken the fancy of someone who’d been put off by my cig, which meant they’d felt a bit hard done by. I’d grow tired of it, often responding with: “because it’s cool.” That usually shut down any rebuttals fairly swiftly.

‘Lads would approach me with this sort of faux-paternalism and barely-masked disappointment saying something like: “why do you smoke? It’s bad for you.”’

Women who smoke do so because they want to. I don’t smoke for the approval of others and nor will I be quitting for the aesthetic and sexual gratification of others. I do not exist for your consumption, and nor do my habits. A similar narrative is often run with fatphobic comments – expressing feigned concerns about someone’s health with the real subtext being that many people simply don’t find it attractive.

The sexualisation and gendered perceptions of smokers are not novel. Advertising strategies to sell cigarettes tapped into these perceptions a long time ago. In 1968 Phillip Morris launched Virginia Slims, a brand targeting women who smoke (or should), that led with the slogan “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby”. The ad deftly illustrates the intersection of the two camps above – it matches up smoking with notions of female emancipation and independence and elicits, what we would probably call today, a bad bitch energy.

The ad subverts the idea that smoking is unattractive and in leading with a beautiful, slim, blonde white woman, it pushes that idea that the habit is elegant and feminine, and can result in an appearance not unlike the model.
A further ad for Virginia Slims took the message further, with the tagline: “121 brands of fat cigarettes fit men. Virginia Slims are made slimmer to fit you. The insinuation, of course, was that the Virginia Slims brand could aid with keeping a slender figure.

If you have opinions on women who smoke – so strong you feel you must tell them – you usually fall into one of two camps. It’s either because you think it’s doubly unattractive to see a woman smoke as a woman’s value is based solely on her appearance, or you fall into the second camp with those who find it “sexy”.

For some, smoking is vaguely taboo and rebellious. But I can promise you, female smokers don’t always = bad girls. Personally, I am a serial rule follower and goody-two-shoes. But of course this perception is also problematic, and constructed around a woman’s habits being used to measure her perceived sex appeal for the consumption of others. As usual, the taboo around smoking is amplified for women of colour – the transgression all the more dramatic because of cultural expectations; more unattractive because brown bodies already sit in antithesis to western beauty norms.

But our habits are our own – they are certainly not a tool to be used against us in a measure of physical appeal. Keep hold of your agency because your appearance has long been appropriated by others to fuel their objectifications so resist the same in relation to your habits. They are yours. If you like a drink, you have a drink. If you want a cigarette, you have your cigarette.

And if someone tells you they hate when they come across women who smoke – tell them to fuck off. Post break-up, a lot of people have been hitting me with that mantra that I must now learn to love myself. But I already do, thanks. Dipping my toe into dating apps has both sent me running for the hills and given me a new mantra I can really take seriously; keep your friends close, and your cigarettes closer.