How To Be A Woman—What?

Sorry, ladies: this is not an instruction guide. If you thought I had magically conjured the perfect formula to navigate society’s double standards and unrealistic pressures, then I’m sorry, but let me know if someone else does it…

Last night I saw a show put on by one of my school’s Theater and Performance Studies classes, a devised work called The Girl Show, part musical revue, part spoken word. I knew several of the women performing in the show, and wanted a break from finals, so I figured I’d check it out.

girl show
One of the logos for The Girl Show. Photo from Facebook.

The show definitely made me laugh by poking fun at stereotypes—remember trying so hard to look cool wearing that skirt as a tube top?—and with fun dances to a Lily Allen song and some amusing originals.

But more than that, it hit me where it hurt. Hearing my friends’ stories of leers and catcalls, assaults and unwelcome touches, scars from breast tumors, body image problems, and more was a humbling reminder of not only the frightening things women are forced to deal with on a daily basis, but the strength it takes to bear them.

Their stories

One woman got up and said that her parents never told her she was pretty growing up—but rather than make her feel ugly, she never noticed the lack because they always complimented her on what she did (school, activities) and who she was as a person. It wasn’t until she was older and her friends at school received endless attention for their looks that she realized being attractive was something she “should” be focusing on and working towards.

Another woman, a friend of mine, spoke about the sense of obligation she felt in satisfying her partners’ sexual needs, a sense of obligation that her partners never felt. Not that they were bad guys—but they didn’t have the instilled, automatic drive to make sure someone else’s needs were met, often at the expense of their own. With immense bravery, she explained how this attitude contributed to her rape.

Similarly, but separate from The Girl Show, a friend of mine was telling me recently about a guy that would not stop pestering her about dating him. She said she wasn’t interested but that they should still be friends, but he repeatedly insisted, over and over again, how much he wanted to date her. One night they were doing homework in her dorm room, when he launched into one of these long, emotional diatribes; she told me that felt so deeply uncomfortable and vulnerable in this situation because he kept ignoring her wishes and feelings…but she couldn’t bring herself to ask him to leave her room because she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. She didn’t want to be “mean.”

Well there will always be crappy people, we need to deal with it…

Doubt takes away the very tools we need to stand up against our inequality. Photo from Flickr.

But it is precisely the things we teach women—smile, be nice, put your boyfriend first, put your children first, don’t be too loud, don’t talk too much, don’t wear those clothes, you’re asking for it—that take away our ability to resist under these pressures. If we’re taught that women are nurturers, women take care of the people around them before themselves, women are there for support first and foremost, we are taking away from their ability to stand up for themselves, and replacing it with doubtWhat if that makes me mean? What if that makes me bossy? What if I seem to think I’m better than them? This doubt is what stops us from asking for what we want, demanding what we need. Whether that’s physical and emotional safety, a little reciprocation, or a higher salary, social pressures replace our demands with doubt every day. When we doubt, we can be taken advantage of.

Where do these social pressures come from?

  • the media: every time you see a movie, television show, or advertisement in which the women (or more usually, lone woman) have no other identity beyond their relationship to a man or child, and serve no other purpose than to be sexualized, objectified, or admired for their looks
  • qualifiers: “wow, you’re ___ for a girl.”
  • judgments: every time the first thing you hear, ask, or think about a woman is related to how she looks, dresses, or presents herself—”oh, she shouldn’t be wearing that for her body type,” “why doesn’t she was more/less make up?,” “she clearly doesn’t eat enough, someone should get her a cheeseburger/should control herself more, she’d be pretty if she lost some weight,” “I can’t believe her top is so long and her skirt is so short”
  • the way we discuss fictional characters: every time you think the guy who won’t take no for an answer (despite protests and dislike) is romantic and cute, because you know you’re watching a movie and this is the Guy She Ends Up With, and she’s just being “cold” and “not open to love”…but in real life if this happens, this means these people think they know better than you about what you want, and dismiss your “no thank yous” and “I’m not interesteds” because, like the movie, you’ll come around eventually to the Guy Who Was There All Along
  • jobs: every time you assume a kindergarten teacher is a “she” and a computer programmer is a “he,” or every time my friends look around in their science classes and see nine males for every female classmate, or every time my mom walks in to present at a board meeting and sees a table full of men staring back at her
  • every time a woman says she “just” wanted to __ or is “just” __, and every time a woman apologizes excessively for anything from having a reaction to something to starting a sentence
  • every time a man who openly, on the record, says these things about women gets a vote for presidential nominee

This isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.

What’s a first-world girl to do?

I know women in other places have it worse; from restrictions on women voting, driving, and dressing, to far more drastic measures like female genital mutilation, being a woman in the US isn’t half as bad as in other places.

In fact, being a white (/white-passing) woman in the US isn’t even the worst you could have it here. While women overall make 79 cents for every man’s dollar, women of color make 60 cents. What about differently-abled women? What about teen mothers? Beyond just employment and paychecks, what opportunities are women in my own backyard being deprived that I don’t even need to think about?

I don’t know sometimes. Other women having it worse doesn’t mean that the problems I do know about, and that affect people I know personally, don’t exist. Do I have a right to be upset about being pressured to dress a certain way when other women are being deprived schooling because of their gender?

I don’t have a solution to these problems. But I think about it every day. And to me, part of being a woman is trying to do something about it. For my fellow women, my friends, sister, and future daughter(s).

Here are some of the things I think can help: Vote. Politically, and with your dollar (did you know Gina Rodriguez helped start a lingerie company that employs single mothers? Check it out!), and with your viewership (which is kind of your dollar too…marketer/advertiser hat on). Donate. Volunteer. Spread awareness (my Facebook timeline is essentially just links to articles at this point). Support women who are speaking out.

Listen, and help amplify the voices around you that need listeners.

Photo at top from Flickr.


2 thoughts on “How To Be A Woman—What?

  1. Such an awesome post., it covers so much ground but doesn’t feel like a heavy read. I agree that breaking up the body with the large headers makes it easier. It feels like you’re moving through the post faster.

    Keep up the good work!


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