Our culture demands (via our responses to and treatment of women who choose to step outside of, disregard, or even ignore these strict expectations and stereotypes) that women both know as well as "play their role," so to speak. That if they do not, there will be a problem.
What exactly is that role then? And how do we think of and treat women who do not fit into these narrow categories of expectation? As well as, in what ways is this incredibly damaging to both women and men?
Thinness. Basically, any woman over a size 6 is deemed too big for beauty. Our standards for body have become extreme, to the max. Whereas men can be/become portly, chunky, even fat, and their partners are supposed to be totally fine with it because simply by means of their being a man, an overweight woman is oft deemed unlovable or unattractive almost immediately, sure to be left or "traded in" for someone younger and thinner, as well as being seen as just generally unfeminine, and unsexy. We still maintain an incredibly narrow ideal for what is considered a beautiful or feminine body type. Those that fall outside of such are frequently made to feel unfeminine and ugly.
Taking up as little space as possible. This ties in to the first one. Though its both about physical size, as well as an idea that stretches beyond just physical space. However, first lets examine the way most women sit, versus how men tend to sit. Women usually sit with their legs crossed, their bodies essentially closed in on themselves. Men tend to instead sit with legs splayed, taking up almost double their space and feeling entitled to do so.
Taking this a step further though, men in our culture at large are allotted much more space. In their being the central focus of a majority of our cultural stories and narratives (whether in books, movies, television, men tend to be front and center much of the time), whereas women frequently play the romantic interest, the sidekick, the best friend, or the train wreck.
Men rule in politics, whereas women tend to be focused on for their appearances (aka, "did you see what Michelle or Hillary were wearing?").
Even in sexual imagery, women tend to strike smaller, vulnerable poses. Bending over, crouching down, crawling. Whereas men tend to strut, chests out, face forward and upright, powerful and in your face.
Women are taught to take up as little space as possible. Those who tend to take up more are deemed "too much," "too big," "unfeminine" or "un-ladylike."
Ever beautiful. Look throughout our cultural landscape, both in real life and media. Women are supposed to be the trophies, the decorative showpiece, ever the beauty alongside however much of a beast he might be.
Further, in terms of what being beautiful means, both in media, though nowadays its becoming a major trend in real life too, women have come to fixate on and are taught to cultivate and attempt emulating an almost pornified type of beauty. Huge, plumped lips. Gigantic, balloon esque breasts exploding out of their tops. Makeup that looks painted on. Private parts all but falling out of skirts and shorts. Butt cheeks and boobs on perpetual display. Super slim waists coupled with curvaceous bottoms and big breasts is the ideal to be achieved at any cost. All of this is extreme, over the top, pornified to the max.
Women are receiving very specific messages about beauty, from both the sex industry (as evident in their looks/fashion, which is tipping ever more street walker esque), as well as from airbrushed, computerized advertisements, media, and sexed up television and movies.
For a visual case in point of this beauty double standard (the woman must look great always, while with men, its completely negligible), take a look at most of the female characters across a variety of shows and movies: The Sopranos, Gossip Girl, Deadwood, Boy Meets World, Big Bang Theory, King of Queens, even the Simpsons. The women are always the beauties, made up to the max, silently but overtly told that if they aren't beautiful, they likely wouldn't be in the position that they are. One of their main appeals and reasons for being where they are, and for the people who want to spend time in their company- their looks.
Quiet. As women, we are told that sexy means being "quiet," "coquettish," "sweet," and "soft spoken." Women who "talk too much" are seen as over bearing, "gabby," "obnoxious," "shrill," or just "too much." The quieter a woman is, this has been made culturally clear as being preferable to women who have much to say, and who vocalize strong opinions or thoughts.
Likeable. The woman who isnt sweet, nice, and "lovely" is deemed unlikeable by default. If a woman expresses strong opinions, is "difficult," "challenging," or isnt perpetually agreeable, easygoing and understanding. Or if, god forbid, she gets in bad moods or even, gasp, angry at times. If a woman stands up for things and says no. All of the above and then some? She is seen as unlikeable. Very anti-feminine. The ultimate crime as a female. Women must always be likeable.
Sweet/polite. Women are supposed to be permissive, always kind and compliant, warm, sweet spoken, not to ruffle any feathers or speak strongly against anything. Woman who do ruffle feathers, who somethings speak unfavorably or stand up for themselves, who voice preference and say no? They are often deemed aggressive, loud mouthed, annoying, "difficult," "unruly," and ultimately "unfeminine."
Permissive. As women, we are supposed to be ever forgiving, tolerant, allowing, to brush things aside and "let it go." If a woman is definitive, opinionated, or strong willed, she is seen as mean, aggressive, masculine, annoying, difficult. Whereas when a man is strong willed, opinionated, definitive, its seen as an enviable trait suggesting strength and confidence.
Allowing and forgiving, never angry. This goes in with the above regarding "permissive." Women who are "angry" are seen as the ultimate in unbecoming and anti-feminine. Men who are angry? Strong, "knows what he wants," confident, masculine, a real "go getter." Women who get angry are seen in a very negative light, despite anger being a completely normal and even necessary human reaction in life at many a time (regardless of gender/sex). Women who get angry are seen as masculine, "over the top," repellant, shrill, "crazy," aggressive, and (gasp) very unlikeable.
Interested in shopping, exercise, makeup, magazines, babies, fashion, cooking, and baking. The attributes of "feminine females." Women who might be into, say, rock climbing, or formula one racing, or farming, or who wear sneakers and jeans, or who might hate the color pink, or who do not want children, or who aren't especially interested in makeup or magazines? (I could go on and on). They are seen as unfeminine, not girly or ladylike, not a "real woman," all apparently a very bad thing. Because of course, there are only a few narrow ways in which to be feminine. One must follow a strict subset of rules, behaviors, ways of thinking, and expectations. And this includes their hobbies and interests too.
In perpetual competition with other women over men. Women are taught that other women are competition. Those to be suspicious of and uneasy over. Not to be trusted. That whats crucial is to be prettiest and thinnest, the one who garners the most attention. The one who "gets the guy." So many females are in constant undercurrents, both consciously and subconsciously, of competition with each other. Even made out to be sexy or a source of ridicule (think of the term "cat fight"). This being glamourized and normalized in countless movies, television shows, books, literature, etc.
The major problem with this? It divides women, instead of uniting them. It doesnt set the tone for healthy, trusting, happy, inspiring female friendships. Instead, it lays the groundwork for manipulative, shaky, untrustworthy, unhappy female connections. Not good at all.
Our chief life mission: to find a man, and without such, we are nothing. This is crammed down our throats via magazines (look at any magazine cover geared towards woman. The headlines are all about clothes to "look sexy in," our bodies- and how to make them better, and the art of pleasing men). In literature, most love stories are centered on women finding a man, and feeling lonely and lost without. In TV shows, countless women are seen bowing down to, settling, and catering to crappy men- simply as a means of "having someone," for which they are incredibly thankful and "lucky." As mentioned above, we are heavily geared towards being in perpetual competition with women over men. Because having a man is apparently the pinnacle of life and ultimate goal one should have. And then, once having found said man, our life should revolve around him.
A mother. This is our calling, its an "instinct" and is "natural." Its what "normal" women want for their lives. And if one doesnt want to be a mother, she is weird, something is wrong with her, she is not maternal, certain to regret it, frigid, and just not a "normal" woman. However, on the flip side, mothers are often equally pigeonholed in damaging and degrading ways. Moms tend to be viewed through a sexless, washed up lens. They can also never be good enough moms, never sacrificing enough, never perfect enough, and yet, moms who give up everything for their children tend to be viewed as martyrs, one dimensional, unsexy, and as though having "sold out," with regards to career and other life passions. There isnt much winning within the perception of "mother" in our culture.
Women should be ever sexy, enticing, highly sexual, and seductive. And yet, we shouldn't actually be overtly sexual, otherwise we are deemed "cheap," and "sluts." So a woman should be a nymphette of sorts, the ultimate fantasty, though not actually have sex. She should exude hotness, yet not actually be a sexual being. Her sexuality should be sterile, chaste, inauthentic, just for show, for the pleasure of men. Malleable and contrived to turn on her male counterparts.
If a woman does hint at or even wear proudly a sense of sexuality and confidence, people dont know how to react to this. (With the phrase "wearing proudly a sense of sexuality and confidence," this is not to be confused with dressing extremely provocatively, which seems to be the singular lens through which we view "sexy" or "not" nowadays. Falling out of your clothes? We deem these ladies sexual, hot, and easy. Not? They are prude, uptight, boring, part of the wallpaper (aka invisible against the landscape of highly sexualized others). We forget there are many other ways of exuding a comfort with ones sexuality than essentially dressing in ones underwear to go out and about).
Women who are confident with their sexuality tend to freak people out. Other women feel threatened, because in their eyes, this type of woman is sure to win the man attaining contest. And men tend to feel either hostile, unnerved by, or grasp onto this singular view of said woman and then view her as a purely sexual object as opposed to the multi dimensional human being she is, who is also comfortable with part of her as a sexual being.
So, why is all of this so damaging?
Because it makes womanhood an exclusive club, from which a sweeping number of its born-into members are banned by their not meeting deeply rooted, rigid guidelines from our culture for such.
Because it pits women against each other, breeding mistrust, weariness, and competition. And when women mistrust each other and are essentially against each other, they sure as heck aren't going to band together and bring one another up.
Because, it leaves the majority of women who do not have these idealized, picture perfect body types and looks feeling unloved, self loathing, and ugly.
Because imposing such narrow guidelines on what beauty can look like rises incidence of eating disorders, low self esteem, and general unhappiness along with lack of satisfaction with oneself.
Because it also teaches men to judge women through this same narrow lens and criterium. And when men view women as valuable based on their level of hotness (or not), as depending on how much of a stereotypical and "correct" woman she is, this paves the path for men feeing more entitled. It also leads the way for men developing negative thinking towards a lot of woman, as well as leading to some of them degrading and mistreating women. If you aren't the "right" type of woman? Then you are less than. And this is where is gets dangerous and feeds into the bigger picture of male violence and mistreatment of women.
Though there are a plethora of pieces to this puzzle, this is one of them. A contributing factor among many in our culture as to why there is continued, wide spread violence against women.
Until we shift, widen, and even do away with these strict, rigid, oppressive, and limited expectation and preconceived notions of femininity (and masculinity), we wont make significant further strides. And since we have made numerous relevant strides (the equal pay act- though I dont think this is followed quite the way it should be, womens right to vote, the widening of career options for women, to name just a few, though there are more), we are still behind.
Lets not settle, and lets not stop there. We have more work to do.
Women can and do come in all shapes, sizes, and personas. None of them less woman than the other. Short or long hair, some even with shaved or no hair. Loving the color pink, or the color black, or red, or green, or no colors at all. Some love to shop, other loathe it. Some women are feverant writers, painters, other love to garden, or are into farming, or electrical work, or scientific research, or construction, or architecture. All of these women are just as woman as the other.
Some women love to dance, others revel in rugby, some enjoy soccer, while others are great at gymnastics. And some who dislike all sports. There are women who dont like to shave, yet still love being women. Some of us want babies, others do not. Neither of these choices makes a person more or less of a woman. Simply by means of someone being able to do something naturally doesnt mean she has to, or even should. That she is weird, or wrong, or unnatural for not wanting such.
Some woman love the outdoors. Others prefer holing up in cafes. Some are petite, short, whereas others are leggy, stork-like and impossibly tall. Some women are curvaceous, others are thicker. Some women are strong, even muscular. Others are not. Some women have large breasts, others have quite small ones. Some like jewelry, others think its lame. Many women adore flowers, while others shudder at the thought of being gifted with blooms. Some women are quiet. Others are loud, talkative, opinionated. None of these people is more or less of a woman.
Many women (and men) deeply desire a long-term romantic partner. Many others do not. They are not abnormal, to be pitied, strange, or pathetic. Just because our culture tells us that a romantic relationship is the be-all, end-all, the ultimate life end goal, the pinnacle of life happiness, does not mean thats true. Thats a cultural perception, a heavily pressed upon value and concept. Not necessarily a reality for everyone, nor an actuality.
There are many men and women who love their own company. Who feel no desperate or distinct need to "find the one." Who enjoy sex and romance, though feel equally at home and contented without a partner. Neither of these are less feminine or masculine than those that long for such.
We need to stop judging femininity (yes, masculinity too. Though for this article, the focus is on females) through such a narrow, pointed lens. That if she doesnt tick of all the boxes, she is somehow "not really womanly," "nor very feminine."
All of us have numerous contradictions within. We all break the rules, in some regard. This is part of being a human in all their complexities. Instead of condemning, pointing fingers over, and gazing with disdain over such though, why not celebrate this? All the varying layers, some of which even contradict and not make sense, within each of us. The complexities that exist within all of us.
What it means to be a woman (or a man) is an endless amount really, of different things. A woman can be anything, and everything. It starts with the perception she carries of herself, though much of it is equally validated and influenced by the perceptions of those around us. This is a major bummer, but its a truth of living within a civilization, surrounded by people and a culture. We are influenced heavily by such.
So. Lets start changing that culture even more. Lets start shifting, opening up, and widening how we view what it means to be a woman in our culture. And even better, lets look at differences in people, as well as those supposed contradictions that dont fit in with our rigid expectations of each sex/gender, with curiosity, interest, and celebration.