As a woman, I’ve been encountering situations where I feel like I have to reconcile two very different sets of expectations for myself. Professionally, women are becoming more able to have significant roles as leaders in society. But then personally I feel like I’m supposed to do the opposite and take up as little space as possible (both in conversations or, literally, in the room) and be, well, pretty all of the time. How do I deal with feeling like I have to be two different people and walk this fine line?
Finding a Fit
Dear Finding a Fit,
Women engage in this kind of self-monitoring almost constantly, spending valuable time and space in our minds on trivial concerns such as our appearance.
It’s the age-old celebrity complaint: Splash the word “anorexic” over my face on your magazine’s cover, then put me on “baby-watch” if I gain five pounds. Women just can’t win sometimes.
We are liberated and equal and free to do what we want as women — but those of us who go to bars are expected to wear the same skin-baring clothing in the Skeeps line, snow or otherwise. As women, our sexualities are policed. We are supposed to be attractive but walk, like you said, a very thin line — careful not to breach into the dreaded territory of “slut.”
It’s like this.
Society: You should be a young, sexy, attractive woman. You are a sexual being. Flaunt it. Enjoy being objectified — it’s a compliment.
*Woman wears hella cute body con mini-dress with iridescent sequins around the v-neck top*
Society: You’re dressing too provocatively, your dress is too short, too much of your cleavage is exposed. It’s like you’re asking for it. Slut. How can anyone respect you professionally if you dress like that?
This is part of being a woman: mastering this dichotomy. We are perpetually dealing with the systematic, daily commercialization of our bodies. But as we encroach (theoretically) more and more into the professional world, how are we to behave?
I walked into my always-chatty 11:30 a.m. class a few weeks ago wearing the same shoes I always wear, the same pair of fleece leggings I slip on when it’s a little chilly out, and the red button down flannel shirt I wear in the fall. My bangs are growing out so I put my hair in a bun to keep it out of my eyes — nothing out of the ordinary. A male student approached me and asked me a) if I had an exam coming up or something of that nature or b) if I was sick.
I have been asked maybe a dozen times in my life if I am sick on the days I don’t wear makeup or don’t straighten my hair (which are often). These men, the ones that ask me this, clearly have spent no real time with a woman. They have specific expectations for my appearance and they are more than willing to make it known when those expectations are not met.
It’s that moment two days into midterms when your male friend whispers about a female fellow classmate’s armpit hair, scowling and scrunching up his nose. It’s the girl not wearing the bikini she loves and it’s the girl next to her, wearing the bikini, whose body is automatically scrutinized by everyone walking by. I catch myself doing it.
So talk to other women about this. If I feel like I can’t walk into class with my hair in a bun without being assumed to have fallen ill, other women have experienced this.
The expectation to look “good” (good as defined by some other absurd standard) while performing to the same (higher?) caliber as men in your position exists. And this is just one example of the conflicting expectations society has for women. Be conscious of it, talk about it, make others aware of this feeling of duality, share your experience. Don’t let these confusing expectations determine how you will behave.